This time last year, Matthew McConaughey was invariably a household name, and critics had taken special notice of his creative rebirth (as we’ll document below). But being mere weeks away from Dallas Buyers Club’s wide release, months before True Detective, and a full year ahead of Interstellar (not to mention out-of-this-world Lincoln car ads) made it impossible to realize just what the McConaissance truly had in store for us.
Yes, we are at the peak of a multi-media rejuvenation of McConaughey’s career. It’s been so meteoric that it makes his appearance in the latest Christopher Nolan film as an intergalactic NASA pilot seem like common place. Love him or hate him, we must accept this next step in (career) evolution. And here are the 10 steps that made the McConaissance alright, alright, alright.
Matthew McConaughey’s first step in reminding audiences why he’s one of the best movie stars working today came from a decidedly un-movie star part. It wasn’t even originally his since two previous stars had vacated the role prior to McConaughey signing on as Rick Peck, the TiVo-loving agent of Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) in the brilliantly mean-spirited Tinseltown takedown, Tropic Thunder. Another movie star who fell on some rough times in the mid-2000s had originally agreed to do that role, but he later convinced Stiller to re-cast him as the sleazy, overweight studio mogul named Les Grossman. That actor was Tom Cruise. Longtime Stiller collaborator Owen Wilson next took on Peck, but then had to leave the picture all together after a suicide attempt. Thus, it came to McConaughey, who like Cruise and Robert Downey Jr. in that film, was allowed to satirize his movie star persona.
McConaughey’s Peck could have been written off as a minor Hollywood sycophant archetype, but instead found a uniquely laid back quality that made his fast-talking seem strangely sincere, punctuating his business calls with a gingerly Southern drawl (well that, and his competitive Wii Sports regiment). Indeed, McConaughey’s ability to imbue Peck with the faintest hint of sympathy as he struggled with betraying his best friend and owning a Gulf Stream V ultimately rewrote the ending of the picture, as Peck was originally killed off by the film’s villainous Laotian drug cartel. Instead, Stiller reshot an ending where Peck saves his friend and gets his Gulf Stream. It surely made moviegoers h-h-h-h-h-appy.
McConaughey’s first leading role in recent years as a serious actor was in Lincoln Lawyer, a 2011 film that in retrospect seems like a nifty subliminal suggestion to force audiences to remember McConaughey’s heroic legalese roles from the 1990s. Whether it was as the white lawyer learning a valuable lesson about race in Joel Schumaucher’s A Time to Kill (1996) or as the white lawyer who learned another valuable lesson about race in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), McConaughey was one gallantly schooled attorney. But this 2011 legal eagle came after a decade of far more cynical studio efforts, and lawyers were back to being the subject of audiences’ least trusted professionals.
Thus, McConaughey’s Mickey Haller is every bit the self-aggrandizing narcissist those previous roles implied, but without the real possibility of redemption. McConaughey is allowed to find the grays and cracks in one of his previous well-worn Hollywood images and nearly jumps off the screen with visible hunger when he devours this juicy role so thoroughly that viewers are able to ignore the sparse freshness coming from the rest of the color-in-the-lines picture. This is a star vehicle for McConaughey, one that he gleefully drives off the paved road and into the dirt that his career GPS had long avoided. It’s a blast.
Anytime McConaughey reteams with his Dazed and Confused director Richard Linklater, it is cause to be intrigued. Two Texans who came out of the Austin scene with talent and charisma to spare, they have both seen meteoric rises since that 1993 teaming, albeit for Linklater, it has been mostly on the indie circuit with the revelatory and experimental Before Sunrise trilogy and rotoscoped acid trips like Waking Life. They teamed one more time in the ‘90s with an ambitious star vehicle for McConaughey, The Newton Boys, but their real reunion came in this curiously upbeat 2011 dark comedy, Bernie. As the story of how Bernie (Jack Black), an appealing and seemingly A-sexual Good Samaritan, finally lost his patience with his church’s resident grouch (Shirley MacLaine) and ended her life, Bernie‘s a true crime tale of Texan justice that’s most notable for how much the community accepted Bernie’s little indiscretion.
He is just so darn likable, and she kind of had it coming, right? Amusingly, Linklater again casts McConaughey as the creep in the background, except this time he is the justice-minded DA Danny Buck Davidson. McConaughey is once more a lawyer on a moral crusade, so is it bad that we kind of wish he’d leave poor Bernie alone? When Jack Black can win the popularity contest for both the onscreen characters and the audience, it is obvious that both actors are bringing something special to this oddball dramedy.
As of 2012, McConaughey was subverting his image as a smiling Southern bumpkin with an Ace up his sleeve, but in Killer Joe, he was allowed to burn that image to ashes, and then deep fry it again for optimum flavor. Directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection, Bug), Killer Joe is one of the most disturbingly lurid films featuring big name stars—McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Hayden Church—released in the last several decades. This picture earns its hard NC-17 rating, and McConaughey has never been better than as this toxically charming police detective who moonlights as a low-level contract killer.
When Chris (Hirsch), an indebted drug dealer, figures out that the best way he can pay back loan sharks is by having his abusive mother assassinated, he ropes in his deadbeat dad (Church) and his younger sister (Juno Temple) to help him out. However, he won’t have Killer Joe’s five-figure fee until after the job is done, so Joe takes a retainer: Chris’ barely legal little sister as his sexual property. This movie uncomfortably crosses the boundaries of greed, matricide, and sex with shades of pedophilia and definite perversion permeating throughout. It is an art film reveling in bad taste; it’s uncomfortable in the way that only Friedkin can induce, but McConaughey is the most unnerving monstrosity of all, making things totally not “alright.”
Up next on our list of magical Matthew McConaughey movies is Magic Mike. After nearly a decade of the “stripper with a heart of gold” subgenre—dominated by infamous efforts like Exotica (1994), Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995), and Demi Moore’s equally ill-fated Striptease (1996)—it was only a matter of time before the real ladies got a movie of their own. But who’d have thought it would be director Steven Soderbergh who finally obliged? The artistic filmmaker who likes to weave between genres and budget-sizes like a Hell’s Angel on the interstate during rush hour, there appears to be no subject matter uninteresting for the eclectic auteur, and that includes male stripping.
A sleeper hit in 2012 for obvious reasons, Magic Mike attempted to explore the underbelly of seedy male erotica that’s supposedly based on star Channing Tatum’s real-life experiences. However, the true toe-tapping treat for audiences was McConaughey’s club owner and former dancer. Equal parts mentor and nefarious shade of the Ghost of Christmas Future, McConaughey acted as Bette Davis to Tatum’s Anne Baxter. As campy as it is gritty, McConaughey playing the older, grosser side of his rom-com bronze statue from only 10 years prior earned a fervent following that even petitioned for Oscar recognition from its most incredulous of devotees.
McConaughey started his game-changing 2013 in style at the Sundance Film Festival with this riverboat slice of transcendentalism. When I reviewed Mud last April, I called it a “slowly fried Southern feast of emotion and humanity cooked on the murky banks of the Mississippi,” and that holds true after multiple viewings.
There is something timeless about the picture’s folksy charm, which is as much a coming-of-age story on the delta, as it is a crime drama that ends in shattering thunder when the family of a man Mud murders comes calling. But what holds it all together, besides the performance of the young protagonist played by Tye Sheridan, is a very affable and restrained turn from McConaughey as the title character. Mud is the definitive Southern storyteller: a man of tall tales and smiling agony. Young Ellis’ existential need for Mud’s love story to come true, despite its legion obstacles, is as relatable to any audience as our own compulsion to see Mud succeed. This remarkable indie remains one of the brightest spots of 2013’s big budgeted CGI-orgies, and it will motor on for many years to come.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Sometimes even the smallest hits leave the biggest marks, and Matthew McConaughey’s rhythmic chest-thumping hit so hard that it affected the entire tone of a Martin Scorsese picture. As some of the earliest sequences, shot four days into production, McConaughey’s three-scene cameo, as Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) mentor into the world of Wall Street, cocaine, and chronic masturbation (jerking off “keeps the blood flowing”), is designed to leave a big impression on Belfort and the audience.
However, that extended beyond the camera too. After five takes of the infamous lunch scene were finished, and Scorsese was ready to move on to the next set-up, DiCaprio asked McConaughey about his ritualistic relaxation exercise that he does before every take; his chest-thumping. Amused and intrigued, the two riffed on that energy for one of the movie’s most bizarrely hilarious moments. It even influenced the rest of the picture. Says Scorsese, “I realized that’s the movie! It has to go fast, fast, fast.” When two actors’ rapport in one scene can influence a master like Scorsese four days into shooting, something is going right.
Dallas Buyers Club
Still, McConaughey’s most transcendent 2013 moment is his award-winning role as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. As Den of Geek critic Don Kaye noted in his review, “Movies can show us corners of history that we may not have known about,” and that is exactly what this film does by exploring the less traveled avenues of the AIDS epidemic. Woodroof was given 30 days to live by his doctors when he was diagnosed with HIV, but always the stubborn cowboy, Woodroof beats the spread when he begins smuggling AZT up from Mexico.
The U.S. government may abhorrently drag its heels on treating the spreading AIDS virus, but Woodroof will let any desperate person within Dallas survive—for a price. The boldness of Dallas Buyers Club is its refusal to eulogize Woodroof as a saint or ignore his initially intense homophobic feelings about AIDS and the LGBT community that was so inflicted by it. It is a naturally coarse performance that required McConaughey to lose 50 pounds for the role, but its avalanche of ensuing accolades is truly immeasurable…though Oscars certainly help…
So, at the peak of his career renaissance, McConaughey opts to do…television? At the risk of regurgitating a cliché, it’s not TV; it’s HBO. And as this is the network that is also currently producing the staggering fantasy epic Game of Thrones and the Martin Scorsese-produced gangster drama Boardwalk Empire, McConaughey appears right at home with his former EdTV co-star, Woody Harrelson (it also helps that McConaughey enjoyed some brilliant cameos on HBO’s now defunct redneck opus, Eastbound & Down).
True Detective is so nihilistic that the detecting is irrelevant; it’s just a pretense to explore the broken lives of two men who have splintered in countless directions to the wind. Harrelson’s repressed “family man” is one nervous breakdown away from exploding as a mass murderer himself, and McConaughey’s Rust Cohle imploded long ago. Something is very, very off when a gumbo gumshoe in the heart of Dixie is espousing, “The honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming. Stop reproducing. Walk hand-in-hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters, opting out of a raw deal.”
If noir is doom-ridden, then this is wholly a shade blacker than that genre, with McConaughey as its desolate black hole center. After eight episodes, each week became a waiting game for his next soliloquy about the futility of existence, causing this to be one mystery that audiences should wish to remain unsolved. Sadly, once the story is over, Cohle finally walked into that goodnight and away from this stunning anthological series. But I’ll would wager between the two, Cohle is the true detective.
And the McConaissance continues with a new late 2014 entry: a little movie called Interstellar. Perhaps one of the most ambitious movies of the last decade, Christopher Nolan combined the granduer of David Lean with the sentimentality of Spielberg–plus a mind-bending ending that likely would have done Stanley Kubrick proud. Of course, audiences are already begging to differ.
Nevertheless, McConaughey gives a strong and brilliantly rendered performance at the center of it. While he doesn’t get the meatiest moments that Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway do in the picture, the rapport he must quickly build with young Makenzie Foy as his daughter Murph propels the entire conflict of the movie to its heart breaking and transcendent finale. And it is a credit to McConaughey that every heart string is thoroughly pulled by the picture. In fact, his best scene in the movie doesn’t even have any dialogue on McConaughey’s part. He simply watches his children grow before his eyes within three minutes. The amount of joy, anguish, and horror that simultaneously must cross his face as he realizes that he missed the entire lives of his children is one of the greatest visual marvels in all of Nolan’s opus.
So, there you have it: the 10 steps of the McConaissance. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below!
***This article was first published on February 18, 2014.