This film takes many of Hollywood’s familiar tropes and clichés, and spins them into the dark early years of the US AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The little man who takes on the big battalions starts off as a vile, drunk, bigoted piece of Texan trailer trash; the big battalions are doctors and drug companies trying to find a non-lethal treatment for HIV/AIDS. They want a cure that makes money, and so does he, so he goes to a guru in the unlikely form of a struck-off physician practising in Mexico, and sells large quantities of unapproved but effective remedies back in Texas. He achieves the American dream – anyone can get rich and successful if they try hard enough – but only by living through the nightmare of a terminal illness. He keeps a pump-action shot gun in his car and a pistol on his desk, symbols of his rugged independence. He needs to test his manhood, by riding bucking broncos. He finds to his great surprise he has a gay best friend, and ceases being a heartless tin man and a brainless straw man by overcoming his homophobia and outsmarting the medical profession with his own research. He gains redemption of a kind through the love of a good woman, who also happens to be his doctor.
The authorities obstruct him at every turn: the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and the law (though the Judge is, in true Hollywood fashion, wise and compassionate).
This is a thoroughly right wing film. There is no hint that that the authorities may be right to restrict the freelance peddling of powerful, unlicensed prescription drugs by a completely unqualified maverick. The armed loner, for all his flaws, is a hero against the collective. I detect a smack in the eye for Obamacare, in which the state takes a greater role in medical provision than Americans have been used to. The concept of a benevolent, regulated, free system of health care for all who need it gets no airtime at all, and would be at odds with the film’s glorification of the individual’s struggle against the system.
Had it been made 30 years ago it would have been a sensation. Now that the menace of HIV has been largely tamed in the USA, the film is a period piece – with some lovely period touches: as Matthew McConnaughey’s character evolves into a globe-trotting freelance pharmacist, he acquires an early mobile phone the size of a housebrick. He gives a great performance, as a man whose illness reduces him to a physical wreck and – if you shrug off the film’s politics – raises him to be a moral hero.