The true story of Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a straight but promiscuous lowlife who discovers he is HIV positive in 1985 Texas. Refusing to accept the worst, he turns to blackmarket medicine and becomes the unlikeliest saviour.
Matthew McConaughey's latest and starkest deployment of his newfound serious acting talent — Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Mud et al — risked tipping the renaissance into overkill. This looked like the full-immersion illness trip, Hollywood’s hackneyed passkey into awards season kudos, requiring but not limited to radical weight loss, the blip-blip backbeat of heart monitors and a journey of self-discovery in which the disease might destroy a body but a soul will be healed. Well, put your scorn on hold, for the irrepressible McConaughey has turned the notion of the victim narrative inside out with a wholly convincing portrayal of a bitter but unbreakable spirit.
Ron Woodroof is pure Texan trailer-trash, an oil company electrician trading former rodeo glories for cheap sex, hopped on crappy coke, heedless to his declining health until a chance work accident lands him in hospital. He awakens to the news he has 29 days to live. He is HIV positive, a diagnosis he at first refutes then defies. To realise Woodroof’s decline, McConaughey has stripped down to Christian Bale-in-The-Machinist extremes, the ultimate artistic gesture of self-distortion. He looks withered, a phantom of his familiar, gym-primped, eau du cologne-shifting self. That sun-baked rom-com lunk is fully renounced.
More important, however, is who he becomes. Abandoned by his cheapjack friends, fired from his job, Woodroof rejects despair and ventures to Mexico to source unsanctioned drugs, alternative treatments that stall the disease (a new form of drug addiction). Here he grasps an opportunity for a swift buck which reconfigures as heroism, creating the club of the title, a sly legal dodge in which the desperate flanks of AIDS sufferers at his door don’t buy the illicit medicine but pay a monthly fee for membership where the drugs are a perk.
We soon realise Woodroof is in possession of an agile mind, quick to decipher mystifying science and skewer hospital bluster. But by no means is he reformed. Through all his scheming, he remains a jackass. And McConaughey calculates that Woodroof’s obnoxious centre is another elixir on which he survives. For this is a study of living, not dying.
Shooting around the crummy backstreets of Dallas, Jean-Marc Vallée directs with a sports-movie vernacular of knockdowns and comebacks, plotting his melodrama in days — days spent still alive. His film is unpretentiously conventional in format. Events develop into a battle of wits between this wily Robin Hood, running his ruses from a fleabag motel, and the Federal Drug Agency suits pontificating over fine print. Yet there are magical, contemplative pauses — Woodroof at a Mexican clinic in a tank of butterflies struck by the wonder of life’s touch. At other times, it gains a goofy, capering note as he dodges customs disguised as a priest and (hopelessly) romances Jennifer Garner’s doctor with a twinkle of the faded Lothario, but it is another relationship that shapes the story.
To navigate his marketplace, Woodroof gains an unlikely guide in Jared Leto’s urbane transsexual Rayon, another AIDS victim refusing to be victimised. It’s a moving, indefinable, under any other circumstances inconceivable meeting of opposites, wherein Leto swirls an outrageous cocktail of Noël Coward and Britney Spears. As with McConaughey’s Woodroof, there is no gaudy sentiment, just a gallows-humoured coping mechanism in action, keeping despair and tragedy just at bay. You might describe the effect as feelgood-feelbad.
Get this Matthew McConaughey is currently the most exciting acting talent at work in movies. Next up, the simple business of a Christopher Nolan.