I admit to not having had much interest in seeing this film for three distinctly personal reasons. I had consigned Matthew McConnaughey into the category of sly and silky, preening pretty boy who typically stars in the sort of films which I generally cannot be bothered with - ie. lightweight, dopey, romantic fluff where he can get by simply just playing to type. And I have little taste for watching ill-mannered, grungy, greasy-haired trailer trash guys behaving badly regardless of the story line. And lastly, and probably the most important being that having lived through that period in the beginning of the AIDS crisis, watched so much pain and suffering and lost so many friends to the dreaded plague - it is still hard for me to be reminded of the awfulness of it all.
But to see the transformation in McConaughey who loses 50 pounds from his normally smoothly muscled hunky body to play the role of Ron Woodroof, a rowdy redneck rodeo cowboy and electrician who lives in a tacky trailer, drives a junky car, drinks, smokes and does cocaine in great excess is quite extraordinary. Ron is a scruffy, pugnacious, womanizing bad boy. When he has a work-related injury and lands up in the hospital he is told that tests show that he has full-on AIDS and has thirty days to live. Well, there is no chance in hell that he is taking that diagnosis lying down. He is violently homophobic and when he meets his roommate, another AIDS victim, a transsexual named Rayon (Jared Leto), he completely blows off the whole idea and leaves the hospital in a fury.
Jared Leto is also a revelation as Rayon, the beautiful transsexual. Leto has also shed around 40 pounds and looks so convincingly feminine that is hard to wrap ones brain around the disparity between the actor and the character. His femeninity is thoroughly believable as the two men find themselves depending on each other in a reluctant symbiotic relationship to save their own lives.
As Ron comes to terms with his diagnosis he does research on the disease and becomes something of an expert on drugs and treatment options. He realizes that there are better drugs and options which are not being made available to desperately sick AIDS patients on account of obstacles placed by the FDA and the medical research establishment who are seeking to run controlled trials using experimental drugs and placebos. Ron becomes a man on a mission as he realizes he has no time to wait and decides to take matters into his own hands. He comes up with various risky and ingenious schemes to acquire a variety of drugs and supplements outside the country which are not yet approved for use in the US and to sell them legally to AIDS sufferers.
He finds himself something of a savior to the very population he has been so prejudiced against. But they are his clients and his former straight redneck friends have totally shut him out. So he and Rayon form a prickly but complementary partnership with Rayon doing the marketing and Ron the procurement. It becomes so successful that when the hospital, the manufacturers of AZT and the FDA find out they go to extreme measures to try to shut them down.
Based on an article in the Dallas Morning News by Bill Minutaglio in 1992, screenwriter Craig Borten visited Ron and taped many hours of interviews with him and was given access to all of his journals a month before he died in September of 1992 which was seven years after his diagnosis of thirty days to live. Borten wrote the screenplay and tried to raise the funds in the mid 1990s to make the film with Dennis Hopper directing and Woody Harrelson playing Ron - but failed. There were two more attempts - one with Brad Pitt and another with Ryan Gosling in the lead. It was not until director Jean- Marc Vallee (Young Victoria) and Matthew McConaughey stepped up to the plate that the funds were found.
And this is the dream team. After more than twenty years and such a small budget that they could not afford to use lights, it was all shot using available natural light in only twenty five days which can only be seen as a plus in this case. It has such raw reality. There is not an ounce of vanity. All the supporting characters are generic types. Dr. Saks (Jennifer Garner) gives an understated performance as an earnest by-the-books character who gradually sees the truth. It opened at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013 to great acclaim and has been sweeping up awards and nominations since - including six Academy Award nominations for 2014.
This is more than a story about the individual taking on the establishment. It shines a light on the power of the pharmaceutical industry, it’s unscrupulous and irresponsible practices used to guarantee maximum profit and it’s influence over doctors, hospitals and the FDA which often seems to be in its service rather than the people’s. I was reminded of last year’s award-winning How to Fight a Plague which documents the massive fight by the AIDS activist group Act Up, led by Larry Kramer - to speed up the release of the life-saving drugs to the desperate and dying. Against all the odds - change did come. Those were painful and difficult times which drove ordinary people to do extraordinary things, make unlikely alliances, and finally, subordinate self-interest to a common cause and a greater good.
Review by Belle McIntyre