Year Released: 2013
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto
(R, 117 min.)
Genre: Drama (based on true story)
Awards: 2014 Oscar for Best Actor, Matthew Mcconaughey; Oscar for Best Supporting Actor Jared Leto
“The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully.” Samuel Johnson
Matthew McConaughey plays a rogue, all right, a dissolute huckster living life on the edge. He's a rodeo groupie not too different in his animal appetites from the brutish bulls the cowboys ride. A rebel without a cause until a grim HIV diagnosis gives him one.
Based on a true story, the film chronicles the early days of the AIDS epidemic, the hedonistic Ron Woodroof part of that first cadre of heterosexuals to contact the disease. And Ron wears his excessive straight lifestyle like a redneck badge of honor. An early scene captures his kneejerk disdain for gays as he and his buddies ridicule Rock Hudson after learning of his death from AIDS.
When doctors tell him he is is HIV positive and has only 30 days to live, Ron is more riled at the suggestion that he is homosexual than at his deadly diagnosis.
Doctor: Mr. Woodroof, you’ve tested positive for HIV. Have you ever used intravenous drugs? Have you ever engaged in homosexual con…
Ron Woodroof: Homo, homo…did you say homo? You made a mistake, cause that ain’t me.
Doctor: Mr. Woodroof, we estimate you have thirty days left.
Ron Woodroof: I got news flash for you all, nothin’ out there can kill Ron Woodroof in thirty days.
What first strikes you is the physical alteration. McConaughey shed 45 pounds to inhabit the body of Ron Woodroof, a rail thin sex and substance abuser. But what really resonates is that strange combination of inner grit masked in a bigger than life Texas con man charm, his authentic soft accent as sweet and pure as bourbon and branch water. He is Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer all over again – but now he is several levels down where the charm is an armor instead of a comfortable tailored suit.
Maybe it is that strange mixture of opposites that is the kick in this potent cocktail of a film. In perhaps the best performance of his career, McConaughey injects his rogue with a charm that in the hands of a lesser actor might make him into a mere snake oil salesman. Ron Woodroof bubbles over with a determined joy of life. We can both loathe and love him, this wasted flamboyant cowboy who sees even in his death sentence a way to make a buck.
Ron sets out to save himself, reading about alternate treatments and finally traveling to Mexico to get some unorthodox treatment. Whisked away from death’s door by an exiled US physician who treats him with unapproved drugs, Ron is happy to still be alive, but the shady side of him sees a chance for a profit, too. Hold any sentimental tear-filled words gratitude. He marvels over the business opportunity more than his medical reprieve.
“You could be making a fortune off of this,” he informs his doctor. And that is exactly what Ron himself sets out to do, putting his death on hold as well as some of his preconceptions.
As his circumstances change him, Ron evolves from a “character” into a character study. His illness gives him a purpose in life, as does his strange alliance with a perky drag queen played to perfection by Jared Leto.
We see shades of the late and great Paul Newman in McConaughey’s existential doomed rebel, echoes of Newman’s “H movies – The Hustler, Hud, and Hombre” as Roger Ebert dubbed them. And there is much of Newman’s Cool Hand Luke about MConaughey’s Ron Woodroof as well. His long battle with an officious FDA bureaucrat parallels Luke’s continuing clashes with a sadistic Georgia chain gaing captain.
And just like Newman’s Luke, the dying Ron Woodroof shows us that if you play your cards right, “Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”
Nothing says Dallas like good beef, even if Matthew McConaughey, who systematically starved himself to play HIV positive con man Ron Woodroof, shows more ribs than a steer who had to hoof it on the old Chisholm Trail the whole way from San Antonio to Fort Worth.
Barbecued Baby Back Ribs
Wood chips, for smoking
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons McCormick’s Worcestershire Ground Black Pepper Blend (or other black pepper)
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 racks baby back ribs, at least 2 pounds each
2 lemons, halved
1 cup prepared barbecue sauce (optional)
Soak the wood chips in a bowl of water according to package directions.
Meanwhile, to make the rub, in a medium bowl, combine all dry ingredients and mix well. If you prefer your dry rubs to have a finer texture, the ingredients can be combined in a spice grinder and ground until fine. Set aside. Any extra rub can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 6 months.
Prepare the grill for indirect heat at medium-low. You are aiming to maintain a temperature of 300 F to 325 F. If using a charcoal grill, place the soaked wood chips directly on the hot charcoals. If using a gas grill, place the wood chips in a smoking box and set into the grill according to product directions.
Squeeze and rub 1 lemon half over each rack of ribs. Sprinkle the ribs liberally with the spice rub, then let them sit at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Place the ribs, bone-side down, in the center of the cooking grate, or in a rib holder or rack. Grill, covered, for 2 to 3 hours, or until the meat is tender and has pulled back from the ends of the rib bones. Begin checking the ribs after 11/2 hours in case your grill is running hot.
Leave the ribs unattended and without opening the grill cover for the first 30 minutes. If the ribs start to burn at the edges, stack them on top of one another in the very center of the grill and lower the heat slightly. Ten minutes before serving, brush the ribs with barbecue sauce, if using.
Remove the ribs from the grill and place them on a clean platter. Let them rest for 10 minutes before cutting into individual portions. Makes 8 servings.