The AIDS crisis probably strikes anyone under a certain age as ancient history, but for those who experienced it in real time, it’s hard to over-emphasize the toxic mixture of fear, hysteria and near panic which surrounded its detection and early spread. Twenty years ago, a made-for-television movie (And The Band Played On) explored the history of the disease’s emergence while Tom Hanks’ Oscar winning performance that same year in Philadelphia personalized its impact by exploring the personal & professional destruction of a single individual. Now comes the next chapter in the story, an uncommonly frank exploration of how AIDS devastated those least able to respond to its insidious and lethal spread.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s story is set in the multi-racial, blue-collar world of Dallas, where a hard-drinking, drug-taking womanizer named Ron Woodroof presented himself to a local hospital in 1985 with such a dangerously low T-Cell count that one of his examining physicians predicted the scruffy electrical contractor had only a month to live. Woodroof, a part-time rodeo bull rider with the abrasive personality of industrial grade sandpaper, suddenly found himself shunned by his heterosexual friends, frustrated by the FDA’s bureaucratic approach to fast-tracking possible cures and the medical community’s insistence it couldn’t support unauthorized self-medication. In foul-mouthed high dungeon, Woodroof responded by ignoring his physician’s death sentence and taking personal responsibility for his own health which led him to develop a business devoted to the importation of un-approved foreign drugs for his own use as well as thousands of others who joined his legally contested “private club”.
Matthew McConaughey continues his hot-streak here, following his appearance this summer in Mud. The actor shed a significant amount of weight to portray Woodroof as a defiantly vulgar yet hard-nosed realist who insisted on being compensated by his customers whatever their personal habits or sexual orientation. That inevitably brought him into repeated contact with fellow drug users as well as those in the gay community, brilliantly encapsulated in the person of Rayon (Jared Leto) a transvestite whose prickly partnership with her “supplier” deepened over time into a crucial relationship for both of them.
Conning boarder patrol & customs agents, sparing with the intransigence of federal health bureaucrats and negotiating with foreign physicians, McConaughey’s Woodroof becomes a man easy to admire but hard to like; it’s to the script’s credit, the director’s vision and the actor’s skill that Woodroof’s cranky heroism emerges in such a nuanced fashioned.
Does Leto’s career as a singer & composer of note provide the requisite sensitivity required to make Rayon such an unlikely but appealing person? Rayon’s a tantalizing compendium of toughness, sensitivity, clarity and fantasy, all packaged in outlandish haberdashery. A best-supporting actor Oscar nomination is sure to come - - and it’s well called-for.
Shooting in New Orleans on a miniscule budget, Vallee and cinematographer Yves Belanger make a virtue out of economic necessity; their movie has a pervasive sense of low-rent grittiness perfectly suited to its subject matter. But every nickel shows in the film’s ability to portray the sense of moral & medical claustrophobia initially felt by AIDS sufferers when America’s puritanical attitudes about human sexuality and our misguided “war on drugs” made their terrible situation into a living hell.
The Verdict? A pair of star-turns in a bare-assed depiction of an outsider’s battles with those who responded so badly to an emerging global health crisis.
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