I was fully prepared to dislike this movie. I’ll willingly admit to being a snob on the subject of cinema, and the same goes for actors as well. I watched Failure to Launch (painfully), couldn’t finish How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, felt nauseated when I saw clips of The Wedding Planner at the doctor’s office, and completely avoided Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. And of course, these are some of the films that Matthew McConaughey is best known for. But I did watch Magic Mike last year–right after I saw the miserable Les Mis – and I have to admit I kinda liked it. That’s just about the only reason I was willing to give Mr. McConaughey the benefit of the doubt on this occasion.
Let me set the scene. It’s Texas, it’s rodeos, it’s homophobia, and it’s drugs. Director Jean-Marc Vallee goes to great lengths to reinforce the fact that Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is an absolute asshole at the beginning of the movie. The claustrophobic opening sequence – involving Ron nastily and noisily having sex with two women in the semi-darkness while watching some poor dude get attacked by a bull in the center of the ring – is clearly there to convince us that this is in all ways imaginable a filthy man.
So filthy, in fact, that we aren’t surprised when Woodroof receives his HIV diagnosis. He lives in a nasty trailer, snorts cocaine like the world is coming to an end, and has a pack of equally nasty, chain-smoking friends. Let me repeat: The audience is not supposed to like this guy. But it’s Matthew McConaughey, so somehow, beneath the nasty, racist exterior, you find yourself rooting for him.
The character evolution starts slowly. Woodroof is outraged when the doctor tells him he has HIV, insisting that it’s only something that “faggots” get. For Woodroof, HIV is not only the devastating conclusion to his toxic lifestyle, but also a threat to his masculinity.
I certainly appreciated that the movie shows Woodroof in denial. He won’t (or can’t) admit to himself that he has HIV for several days, which costs him more of those valuable T-cells as his immune system rapidly deteriorates. This has always been a common reaction to an HIV diagnosis, perhaps less so now than when it truly was a death sentence, and there is an important acceptance process that often gets ignored in contemporary discussions of the illness.
This acceptance process is one of the key plot elements of the movie – we watch as a formerly despicable man, after being given a horrifying diagnosis, becomes someone admirable and courageous.
I know that McConaughey is going to generate a lot of buzz for his performance, and he certainly deserves it – he does an excellent job portraying a human being’s moral evolution. Yet it is Jared Leto’s amazing portrayal of an equally charismatic, heroin-addicted transgender woman (Rayon) that makes the movie. I realize that McConaughey went through an astounding physical transformation in order to convincingly play a man at the end of his life, but it took me a full minute before I recognized Leto in Rayon’s drag makeup and hair scarf.
Rayon is the crucial element in Woodroof’s transformation. A pivotal scene takes place in a grocery store, where Rayon and Woodroof are casually buying groceries together and still working out the boundaries of their unusual friendship. One of Woodroof’s old acquaintances, a homophobic, beer-chugging police officer starts taunting Rayon. The satisfaction is almost palpable as Woodroof comes to Rayon’s defence. In so doing, he rejects his former lifestyle and cements his new-found status as a decent person.
I’ve focused on the moral evolution of the Woodroof character in this review, but I haven’t even touched on what many would see as the narrative of the movie – that is, Woodroof’s frustration with the fact that there aren’t any FDA-approved drugs to treat HIV. The only seemingly helpful one, AZT, is touted by doctors and the U.S. government as some kind of miracle drug when Woodroof knows from first-hand experience that AZT exacerbates the effects of HIV and seems to kill people more quickly. Determined to find better medications for himself and, increasingly, his growing circle of HIV+ associates, Woodroof sets up a “Buyers Club” where, for a monthly fee of $400, members can get access to black market drugs that help mitigate HIV symptoms but aren’t approved by an insidious FDA.
At first, Woodroof is clearly motivated by the enormous profit he can make by selling inaccessible drugs to a desperate population. But over time, and in tandem with the other aspects of his metamorphosis, Woodroof cares more about saving the lives of the powerless than he does about making a quick buck.
It is this transformation that makes this an incredibly uplifting movie, despite the dark subject matter. The movie’s social criticism operates on many levels, and the relationship between Woodroof and Rayon is both genuine and comical. It’s more than just another feel-good flick, and I am not exaggerating when I say that it is doubtless among the best films of the year.