Matthew McConaughey's string of terrific mid-career performances (most recently in Mud and Magic Mike) reaches a new peak in Dallas Buyers Club. Even better, McConaughey is matched here by Jared Leto, returning to the screen after five years away and attaining a career high of his own as a doomed drag queen.
The movie begins in 1985, just a few years into the AIDS plague. Working from a tight script by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack, Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée recounts the true story of Ron Woodroof, a Dallas electrician whose raging heterosexual lifestyle of booze, drugs and unprotected sex suddenly put him in the hospital, where he was told he had contracted HIV and had 30 days to live. McConaughey, who lost more than 30 pounds to play Woodroof at this very low point, is brilliant in balancing his character's conflicted response to his predicament. Ron is totally straight, so how could he catch a famously gay disease? A hospital doctor (Jennifer Garner) tells him there's no cure for what he has, and that experimental AZT drug trials would last longer than what's left of his life. When she says that his only recourse is to join an AIDS support group, Ron explodes: "I'm dying and you tell me to go get a hug from a bunch of faggots?"
But then, back in the hospital after attempting to self-medicate with illicitly obtained AZT pills (he gulps them by the handful and washes them down with beer), Ron finds himself in a room with another HIV victim, a transvestite called Rayon (Leto). He immediately recoils from this flamboyant character, resplendent in lipstick and eye shadow, but Rayon slowly wins him over. Soon they've gone into business together, selling illegally acquired AIDS meds at gay bars and making pretty good money at it.
Then Ron gets a tip to drive to Mexico to see a doctor named Vass (Griffin Dunne, wonderful in a deceptively small role), an American whose medical license has been revoked for reasons he'd rather not discuss. But Vass is still a conscientious physician, and keeps current with the latest AIDS research. He tells Ron that while the FDA is being scandalously slow in allowing the testing of promising new drugs, some of these are available overseas. Before long, Ron is flying off to Amsterdam, Tel Aviv and Okayama and smuggling back large quantities of meds. The FDA is soon on his case, seeing him as a simple drug dealer, and to evade the agency's harassment, Ron and Rayon start a "buyers club" for desperate AIDS victims—membership is $400, medications are "free."
Vallée keeps the story moving along with great spirit, and McConaughey and Leto are a wonder to behold. Ron is an abrasive character, seeking no sympathy for his deadly affliction and, as a lifelong hustler, looking upon it as just another chance to make some money. McConaughey shows us his slow transformation from intolerance into understanding with painstaking subtlety, and without a touch of sentimental overreach. Leto, for his part, plays Rayon, not as a simple victim, but as a man who can't help being cuttingly funny even as his life dwindles away. The movie's most striking achievement is that it's not just another AIDS film designed to break our heart. It's full of life and energy. And in the end, it breaks our heart anyway.
Ender's Game fulfills every expectation instilled by its terrible trailer. The movie is cold and overwrought; and despite all of its beautifully rendered pop-pop-pow video-game imagery, it's surprisingly dull. The conclusion is a brazen cheat, and the presumptuous sequel setup at the end is the scariest thing in the film.
The story was distilled by writer-director Gavin Hood from Orson Scott Card's 1985 sci-fi novel. It's set in a militaristic human future, 50 years after an invasion by insectoid aliens called Formics, who killed millions and were only barely repelled. Although the Formics haven't been heard from since, earthling authorities still anticipate another assault, and are cooking up a preemptive attack to prevent it. A new combat force is being trained, composed entirely of teenagers (because kids, with their video-game skills, are better at "integrating complex data").
Among these recruits is a boy named Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, star of Scorsese's Hugo). Ender is irritatingly aloof, and his fellow draftees at the orbital training station don't like him much at first. But a girl named Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) takes an instant shine to him, and top dog Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) thinks he has heroic possibilities. "My father trained horses," Graff says. "I know a winner when I see one."
The movie's action is composed almost entirely of training simulations, with the conscripts tumbling around in zero-g, practicing battle formations and honing their space-pistol skills. These sequences are executed with impressive digital artistry—they're inventively constructed and shot with a razor-edge clarity. But as the movie slogs on, and they keep recurring, the wall-to-wall CGI creates a feeling of airless claustrophobia. We want to see some real Formics blown away, and we keep waiting—and waiting—for the big war to begin.
The movie is also weakened by a structural oddity. Hood keeps cutting away from the kids to cramped scenes with Graff and his subordinate, Major Anderson (Viola Davis), endlessly nattering about Ender's mental state and strategic capabilities. The picture slumps woefully every time this happens, and the director's penchant for TV-style closeups grows oppressive. (Ford's performance, which is heavy on snarling and seething, would have benefitted from a little distance.)
The story's themes are both worthy (the use of an outside threat to justify increasing social militarization) and familiar (a young man's journey from underdog to world savior). But they're overshadowed by the blockbuster imperative for big noisy action, and the digital tumult leaves the actors little room to move. Nonso Anozie gives the film's most likable performance, channeling R. Lee Ermey to play a bellowing drill sergeant named Dap; and Abigail Breslin contributes welcome moments of warmth as Ender's sister, Valentine (with whom he shares an unfortunate inclination toward empathy). But Butterfield has been directed to express little more than resentment and grim determination; and I wasn't sure what to make of Ben Kingsley, who pops up toward the end as a legendary warrior with a head full of tattoos (a tribute to his Maori forebears!).
This is a good-looking movie, but it's hard to imagine who might feel a need for more of it. At one point, Ender says of the Formics, "What if they could talk to us?" Does anyone really want to know?