Frances Winston takes a look at this harrowing film from Jean-Marc Vallée, and reckons that Jared Leto steals the show
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn, Dallas Roberts, Michael O’Neill, Denis O’Hare, Griffin Dunne
With the current rise in HIV infections within the Irish gay community, this movie serves as a timely reminder of the ravages of the disease. The protagonist may be a straight man, but the symptoms and frustrations he feels are the same as anyone else who is diagnosed. The fact that this is a true story only serves to make it all the more poignant.
McConaughey famously lost a huge amount of weight for his role as Ron Woodroof, a hard-drinking, drug-taking, rodeo cowboy and electrician, who has more than a few homophobic views. Having been unwell for some time, he finds himself in hospital after he is electrocuted on the job, and when they test his blood they discover he has HIV.
Since this is 1985, the disease is still very much considered a gay scourge, and Ron finds himself ostracised by those closest to him. Given just 30 days to live, he hears about an AZT trial but fails to get on the testing panel. Determined to live, he bribes a hospital worker to steal the drug for him. When Ron runs out of pills, he heads to Mexico to purchase some more, and with his health rapidly declining, he meets Dr Vass (Dunne) who has had his licence revoked in the US. Vass tells him that AZT is poison, and instead treats him with DDC and a protein called Peptide T.
When Ron finds that his health has improved hugely on the new regime, he realises that there is money to be made from selling these drugs to fellow sufferers. However, they are not licensed for use in the US, and so begins a series of schemes to smuggle them into the country. With the help of a transgender HIV sufferer named Rayon (an amazing performance by Jared Leto) whom he met in hospital, Ron sets up the Dallas Buyers Club whereby people pay a membership and the drugs are part of their membership package – bypassing the illegality of selling the drugs directly. However, the FDA is determined to stop his enterprise, and it becomes more and more difficult to acquire the precious drugs.
Gradually, what started out as a money-making exercise becomes a passion for Ron, who puts everything on the line, both personally and financially, to get people the medication they require. He also reassesses his opinion of the gay community – all the while fighting the government for the right to import the medication which has extended his life years beyond the 30 days he was promised.
This is not always an easy watch. The Woodroof that you first meet is not a very nice person, and even when he begins distributing the wonder drugs, it is still difficult to warm to him, as he is initially doing it for personal gain. Also, as the disease takes hold of his partner-in-crime Rayon, it is depicted in all it’s ugliness, rather than sugar-coated as so often happens in these kinds of movies.
While McConaughey is wonderful as Ron, and definitely deserves commendations for his commitment to the role, it is Jared Leto as the Transgender Rayon who truly shines here. The scene where she dons male attire to visit her disapproving father to ask for money is truly heart-wrenching. At no time does he turn her into a parody, and his performance is sensitive and complex.
It is thanks to people like Ron that many of the treatments available to sufferers nowadays eventually met with approval, and his legacy cannot be underestimated. Many people lived far longer than predicted thanks to the narcotics he procured for them. He also brought landmark cases about treatments for HIV and terminally ill patients to the courts, which raised huge awareness of the issues facing sufferers, and helped destroy the stigma of HIV as a gay illness.
Like all movies of this kind, this is deeply affecting and not exactly what you’d call a light evening’s entertainment. However, these kinds of stories need to be told, and with a stellar script, fabulous cast and wonderful editing, this film is incredibly engaging and touching. And if it makes even one person consider using protection rather than taking a chance when they have sex, then it will have done more than most movies ever do.
In cinemas now