Halloween with its array of ghosts, zombies and demons is just around the corner. For most gay men, though, HIV/AIDS remains the most frightening specter we will face in this lifetime. Two excellent new films serve as unique bookends in their depiction of the AIDS crisis 25+ years ago and today.
In Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club (opening November 1st in Los Angeles and New York before rolling out nationally), Matthew McConaughey gives an impressively unselfconscious, award-worthy performance as perhaps the most anti-heroic of all the antiheroes who have ever appeared on the silver screen. His Ron Woodruff — a real-life, heterosexual man infected with HIV in 1980’s Texas — is unreservedly foul-mouthed and unapologetically homophobic, racist and sexist. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also a swindler when it comes to gambling and an unrepentant abuser of both drugs and alcohol. But the hyper-macho rodeo cowboy also established one of the first underground dispensaries of non-FDA approved drugs for HIV in the US, challenging the medical establishment in the process and ultimately saving or at least extending the lives of thousands of men and women of all sexual orientations.
Of course, Woodruff couldn’t have accomplished this alone. He found what he initially considered a less-than-desirable ally in the transsexual Rayon (a revelatory, similarly award-worthy turn by a largely unrecognizable Jared Leto). While Woodruff traveled to Mexico and other countries — often disguised as a Catholic priest — to obtain what proved to be more effective medications than the often prescribed but destructive AZT, Rayon managed their hotel-based office and growing client load. Sadly, both passed away before more successful protease inhibitors against HIV came into use in the mid-1990’s. Who knows, though, if these meds would have been developed and approved as soon as they did without the heat turned on the FDA by Woodruff, Rayon and others.
Screenwriter Craig Borten (Melisa Wallack is also credited) first heard about Woodruff in 1992. He interviewed the man extensively one month prior to Woodruff’s death. The resulting script, which would take 20 years to get produced despite its great longtime reputation, is clinical and frank to the nth degree. Vallee, who previously made the gay-themed C.R.A.Z.Y., and his superb cast (which also includes Jennifer Garner, Griffin Dunne and out actor Denis O’Hare as various medical types) find the emotional resonance in the literal life and death struggle endured by Woodruff without ever becoming sentimental. Woodruff’s efforts to woo Garner’s doctor help to humanize him but are the film’s weakest element. Dallas Buyers Club wisely doesn’t go the Philadelphia route and make its AIDS-afflicted characters saints, which may disappoint some viewers. These are tarnished men, women and in-betweeners who ended up making a difference despite themselves. We owe it to them and to ourselves to hear their story.
Fast forwarding from 1992 to 2012, we meet another real-life man inadvertently immersed in the world of HIV/AIDS in the beautiful new documentary Blood Brother (now playing in New York and Los Angeles). First-time feature film director Steve Hoover turned his camera on his best friend, Robin “Rocky” Braat. The resulting film scored a rare double win of both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Hoover and Braat met while attending art school in Philadelphia, with Braat setting out to become a graphic designer. Braat soon experienced feelings of being directionless and unsure of his purpose in life. On a whim, he set off for a summer in India. There, he came across a home for women and children with HIV who had been ostracized by their families and society. They stole Braat’s heart and, after a brief return to the US, Braat decided to move to India permanently. Hoover accompanied Braat on his return trip to India, intent on discovering and putting on film what had so galvanized his friend. As Braat says to Hoover with absolute conviction upon their arrival, “Look where God has brought me.” It is also a place, Braat notes, that is “70-80 years behind the rest of the world” in terms of development.
The children shown are adorable, as is Braat, and their stories heartbreaking. Hoover captures the unexpected death of one of the girls as well as chronicles the brave battle of a boy named Surya against a horrific infection. (Kleenex is a necessity while watching these scenes but please don’t let that deter you from seeing the film.) Braat is their constant companion through it all, although the camera also reveals the toll such constant illness, poverty and death take on him. Thankfully, things build to a joyful end as Braat marries a local woman, committing himself once and for all to his new life in India. Even so, Braat warily declares “I don’t see an end to the mission; I don’t see an end to the need.”
John Pope’s sun-dappled cinematography, like Braat himself, strives to find the loveliness in their impoverished surroundings. The editing by Hoover and Tyson Vanskiver is likewise great, especially when it comes to cutting between commentators. Yes, AIDS remains scary stuff wherever it is found but, as both Blood Brother and Dallas Buyers Club attest, it can never destroy the human spirit.
Dallas Buyers Club: A-
Blood Brother: A-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.