First, the rant.
This is a story set in a time -- the throes of the AIDS crisis in the terrifying, no-treatment-options 1980s, when governmental foot-dragging, anti-gay hysteria and open discussions of quarantine camps were the everyday norm -- before there was even a shred of hope for people with HIV. And in that time the overwhelming majority of people on the front lines of education, comfort, compassion, activism and, most importantly, distribution of life-extending non-FDA-approved treatments, were the people of the LGBT community. Watch the recent documentaries How To Survive A Plague and We Were Here if you need to see how it all went down thirty years ago. After you see them, you then have permission to watch this fictionalized true story from director Jean-Marc Vallee about the needle in the haystack, the one in a million, the hard-living, gay-hating, heterosexual, white male who turned his desperation into a business, made noise, made a difference and found salvation from bigotry after becoming friends with a transgender drug addict. It's The Help with AIDS.
Ron Woodruff (an emaciated, unrecognizable Matthew McConaughey), a rodeo-loving electrician with a taste for drugs, booze and sex with lots of women, is diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 1986 and begins seeking out any and all alternative treatments he can find. After locating the non-FDA-approved products that help him partially regain his health, he sets about distributing them to his desperate fellow travelers through paid "memberships," a way of skirting the charge of selling illegal drugs. Meanwhile, his commonplace 1980s-era distaste for anything related to gay men is challenged by the composite character of Rayon (Jared Leto, equally unrecognizable), a transgender drug addict who teams up with Woodruff and acts as a conduit to the market most in need of the membership's service.
It's a showcase for both men. The performances are physically demanding and mostly sensitive when they could have been ham-filled and dunked in awards-grubbing vanity. But as the film moves along it loses a lot of its fiery sense of outrage and turns conservative and cuddly, focusing on the growing niceness of a rough-edged anomaly at the expense of the bigger picture. Details in passing frames, like a Ronald Reagan-mocking AIDSGATE poster from ACT-UP on a wall, show a commitment to at least nodding in the direction of truth, but the pull of warmth and emotionally-satisfying redemption refuses to be denied.
Woodruff made the noise he did because of his outraged sense of denied privilege. Suddenly finding yourself treated like an outcast deserving of death instead of a culturally-approved heterosexual stud is likely to make a man feel as though others see him as less than a man; and that'll make a man angry. To the film's credit, that anger drives McConaughey's Woodruff and provides Leto with the space to movingly act out a community's laundry list of wounds. The powerlessness felt by the sick of that decade was a real thing. And though that powerlessness eventually found itself mobilized into righteous fury and action, that's not the story being told here. Movies like this exist outside of collective movements; instead, they shine the approving light of history on firebrand iconoclasts who break the mold. So you've still got some waiting to do for the mainstream, narrative feature where the Rayons are the dominant voice, the gang of heroes. Because that's what they were.