Remember when Hugh Jackman played the Wolverine for over a decade, but didn’t truly unleash his inner beast on screen until Prisoners? Welcome into that club Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo delighted fans everywhere with his unique yet perfect take on the Hulk in Joss Whedon’s magnificent The Avengers, but it’s not until The Normal Heart that we really see him become “an enormous, green rage monster” to quote Tony Stark in The Avengers. He doesn’t turn green, and he doesn’t grow in size, so it’s not as cool to watch, but Ruffalo proves with this sure-to-be-nominated-for-an-Emmy performance that human emotions can sometimes be more passionate and vibrant than a man turning into a green beast. Here, he plays Ned, a gay man living in New York City in the 1980s, right at the time the AIDS virus begins to creep in. With the government, political parties, and citizens in general seemingly standing against homosexuals, Ned and his group of supporters stand determined to come against AIDS and find a cure for the disease. If you think it sounds a bit like Dallas Buyers Club, you’re not too far off. Dallas Buyers Club is a superior film, but that is taking nothing away from The Normal Heart, which starts off a bit slow, drags for a while, but once it finds its footing really becomes something of a wondrous story of hope.
The great thing about HBO Films is that even though the movies produced under the label are technically straight to television releases, they can have slightly more of a cinematic feel, due to HBO’s superiority over basic channels. With The Normal Heart, you get that. It’s a good looking movie. The lighting is intentionally dark and dreary, which meshes well with the subject at hand. There are some really good camera shots woven throughout this film, but none that really stand out as unforgettable. But no one is watching this movie for the camerawork or lighting. This is a story and character driven period piece, and in that light it is very, very effective. Written by Larry Kramer and based on his play of the same name, The Normal Heart begins slow, and I have to be honest, I was bored for the first forty minutes or so. But once the story really gets going, it goes by in no time. Good thing too, and good thing Kramer knows what this story needs to be. There was a surprising amount of this movie that focused on the relationship between Mark Ruffalo and certain male characters, and that aspect did catch me off guard. In the wrong hands, it could have resulted in a simple romantic drama, but thankfully, Kramer knows that this is a drama about HIV, and in focusing some time on the characters’ love for one another, it makes the really tragic death scenes really resonate. There’s no holding back. There are some real tear jerking moments in this film, and that is thanks to the writing, but also the performances.
As previously stated, Mark Ruffalo is more than likely a lock to be nominated for an Emmy. His performance is extraordinary here as this man who is just broken by the fact that no one is taking notice of the fact that people keep dying from this disease. It’s a moving performance, and one that I admired quite a bit. Also noteworthy are the performances of Matt Bomer (Magic Mike) and Taylor Kitsch (Lone Survivor), who both have some very well rounded emotional scenes that director Ryan Murphey (creator of the excellent television series American Horror Story) sets up very well. Julia Roberts is great, coming right off her Academy Award nomination for August: Osage County and The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons does terrific work in a pretty major role. Also, Corey Stoll from House of Cards (another great television series) makes a nice cameo and Joe Mantello has the best scene in the film involving an escalating monologue that emphasizes the idea that AIDS isn’t caused by homosexuals at all. It’s a wonderful scene. If you weren’t able to tell, I thought all the performances were surprisingly standout.
The Normal Heart, adapted for the screen by Larry Kramer, is an excellent look at the beginning of the AIDS virus. But it doesn’t start, or even stop there. It doesn’t give you a completely boring documentation of the virus’ roots, even though the first act does drag on. No, what Larry Kramer and director Ryan Murphy accomplish is the development of characters. You feel for these people, thanks the standout performances from the entire cast, especially a rip roaring Mark Ruffalo. Because of that, the deaths hit harder, the virus feels scarier, and the impact is heavier.