Set in 1985, Ron Woodruff (Mathew McConaughey) is an electrician and rodeo rider who likes sex and drugs. He learns he has AIDS and has a few weeks to live. He is furious at contracting a disease he attributes to gay activity. He battles with official medicine which blocks retroviral drugs. He gets useful medication illegally after travelling to Mexico. He helps other sufferers and works with a business partner, the transgender Rayon (Jared Leto). Woodruff becomes friendly with a doctor (Jennifer Garner). He proves the medical establishment wrong by a few years…
McConaughey deserved his Oscar for this performance. In the 1980’s US being gay was pretty dangerous (still can be) among the rednecks and cowboys. Woodruff shares his former friends’ contempt for them. He is Marlborough Man, an oilfield electrician who lives in a trailer. Before his diagnosis he was a rodeo rider on bucking bulls which symbolise the frontier values that he must surrender to the uneasy ambiguities of cosmopolitan identity as represented by gays. In keeping with the self help ethos of the Capraesque little guy against the big corporations routine, he does his own homework on medication. As a successful businessman he maintains his links with traditional American values, the enemy is medical bureaucracy, that other punchbag for feisty American individualism. McConaughey usually plays a tanned sex god, in this he is all weight-loss ravaged, his moustache and cowboy hat making him (ironically) look like one of the pop group Village People. He is of course ostracised by his former workmates. His identity crisis seems to be as traumatising as his impending early death. Jared Leto plays the transgender woman’s weary patience well. She is streetwise and sassy in her drag like any strong heroine in a 70’s road movie. The friendship between these two and the imminent death make this quite poignant. Woodruff’s relationship with Jennifer Garner is non-sexual of course, there can be no sex except with another sufferer. Woodruff defends his business partner against the predictable persecutions.
The relationship between Rayon and Woodruff is the riveting centre of this film, like an electrifying performance art that slices through the well worn binaries: freedom and bureaucracy, self help against corporate corruption, feisty didacticism against legal obstruction. Superb.