Working as an unofficial companion piece to David France’s brilliant documentary, How To Survive A Plague, the new film from Jean-Marc Vallée tells the real-life story of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic and prejudiced electrician and rodeo cowboy who develops AIDS in 1980s conservative Texas.
When Ron (Matthew McConaughey) is accidentally electrocuted at work he wakes up in hospital to the news that his life of reckless drug use and unprotected sex has led to him contracting HIV, which has led to AIDS. He is initially told that he has 30 days to live, which leads him to a frenzy of drunken denial. When he finally accepts his fate he meets Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual in the hospital bed next to him that is undertaking an AZT trial under the guidance of Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garderner).
When denied access to the trial, Ron begins to bribe people to get him the drug, before finally learning that it is widely available in other countries. After spending some time in Mexico with a disgraced US doctor, he has a plan to open up a ‘buyers club’ where people pay a $400 membership and get free access to drugs and vitamins that help AIDS complications. He then dedicates the rest of his life to fighting the FDA and their ‘approved’ drug list; the pharmaceutical companies that are making huge profits from selling AZT, a toxic drug; and the doctors that are making money from the drugs companies.
2013/14 has been the season where Matthew McConaughey has undoubtedly reached the big leagues of great Hollywood actors. His appearances in Mud, The Wolf Of Wall Street and now Dallas Buyers Club has given him well deserved recognition as an amazing actor – and this is definitely his masterpiece (so far).
That said however, his performance is equaled (if not bettered) by Jared Leto as Rayon. The unlikely buddying of the two characters creates one of the most touching platonic relationships seen on screen all year. When they are shopping together at a grocery store, one of Ron’s old homophobic redneck friends refuses to shake his hand so Ron violently grabs him and forces him to. The look that Rayon gives Ron is a tipping point in their relationship and Ron’s growing compassion for gay rights.
Although I feel some sympathy for the position of the FDA – that new drugs should be rigorously tested before being given to the wider population – it is undeniable through this and How To Survive A Plague that the AZT was disturbingly expensive. At $10,000 a year for treatment it was the most expensive drug ever marketed, which can only be read as shockingly homophobic and exploitative of a desperate group of sick gay men. As a British audience with access to the NHS, it is painful to consider how much money it costed to treat such a debilitating illness.
The film has had a troubled production history that kept it off screens for the best part of two decades, but it is appropriate that it arrives at the moment when healthcare and LGBT rights are at the forefront of the American ‘culture wars’. In a move towards universal healthcare coverage and a rapid introduction of gay marriage throughout the states, a fitting final middle-finger to regressive 20th century American prejudice would be this film to get as many Oscars as it can…