Ron, a Texas electrician who likes a lot of s*x, drugs and rodeo on the side, gets diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s, a time when no effective treatments were available and most people diagnosed died within a matter of months. Ron refuses to accept his grim prognosis, does his own research on drugs being tested in other countries, and defies both the DEA and the FDA to bring them to needy patients. Along the way, Ron forms relationships with the gay community he had previously scorned, including a transgendered HIV+ person with the wonderful name of Rayon.
Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are outstanding as Ron and Rayon. One of my favorite scenes involves Ron insisting that one of his old rodeo friends, who has shunned Ron since his diagnosis, allow himself to be introduced to the flamboyantly-dressed Rayon. It’s a very Jamie-Brienne moment.
But unlike Blue Jasmine, this movie really doesn’t live up to its hype. It’s got the dreaded “based on a true story” tagline, which means you can never be sure how much of the story actually happened. (Rayon, for example, is a composite character.) The script is weak, and often clichéd. The callous way that doctors set up clinical trials for possible drug therapies in the early days seems fairly presented, and AIDS activists like Ron deserve a lot of credit for changing the protocols for such trials in treating fatal illnesses. But do we really need more “evil pharmaceutical companies only care about profits” caricatures? And the notion that Ron prolonged his own life by “natural” products and drugs provided by dodgy Mexican doctors is dangerous nonsense. Ron was right that AZT, the only drug available in the US at the time, was toxic at the doses then being given. But some people with HIV don’t develop full-blown AIDS for years after the diagnosis, for reasons still not understood. This seems as likely a reason for Ron’s beating the odds (he was originally given 30 days to live) as anything else.
Recommended, with reservations, if only for the principals’ outstanding performances.
Parental Advisory: Some of the early scenes of Ron’s riotous pre-diagnosis life may be overly explicit for younger children.