The Resurgence of Matthew McConaughey by Jack Bottomley
Today Christopher Nolan’s (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception) new space epic Interstellar hits screens and looks set to be the biggest scaled production of Nolan’s already established career. Charting a father’s love, the earth’s fate and a pioneering journey across the stars, the Sci-Fi spectacle stars Matthew McConaughey alongside the talents of Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine.
However that is now, we are not concerned with now but with 2008 and Seth MacFarlane’s long running animated Comedy series Family Guy, “The Former Life of Brian” (Season: 6 Episode: 11) to be precise. Within this episode there was a bar skit between talking baby character Stewie and Matthew McConaughey (voiced by Seth Green). In this gag, Stewie tears the actor apart lambasting his terrible acting, movies and all around persona. Such a scene is essentially one joke of thousands but the sequence is a perfect recapitulation of what Matthew McConaughey was considered to be.
For years, as an actor, McConaughey was blasted by critics for his constantly shirtless, atypical roles and was named everything from “Matthew Mahogany” (Mark Kermode) to being the subject of cutting quotes like ”…Matthew McConaughey, whose continuing Hollywood career deserves a separate chapter in any future book by Richard Dawkins on the non-existence of God…” (The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw). This being said it would be massively impertinent to suggest that the actor did literally nothing good until lately. McConaughey’s breakout role in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) is the most notable example of this, as are turns in Joel Schumacher’s star-jammed John Grisham adaptation A Time To Kill (1996), Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997), Jill Spreecher’s Drama Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2002) and Ben Stiller’s Vietnam movie pastiche Tropic Thunder (2008).
Yet it seems the actor’s unfair and often aggressive targeting was down to being typecast in romantic comedy roles and as the sexy male archetype. For instance, leading roles in badly reviewed films like Tiptoes (2003), Fool’s Gold (2008), Failure To Launch (2006), Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009) and worst of all 2008’s Surfer, Dude (which is actually rated a rare 0% on Rotten Tomatoes). McConaughey certainly hit a massive rough patch in the noughties but still had untapped potential, as the 90s intermittently suggested. As with many rough patches in Hollywood, it can immediately spell doom for someone’s career. Indeed it is only through research that some of you may ever realize that McConaughey appeared in so many decent pictures. And then, something happened, something akin to Mickey Rourke’s comeback in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler or Robert Downey Jr.’s thunderous return in Iron Man, and that was what many have called the ‘McConaissance’.
While some have noted this career resurgence as late as 2013, if we look back at Matthew McConaughey’s filmography, a more realistic starting point was back in 2011 with the great Michael Connolly adaptation The Lincoln Lawyer. In that film McConaughey moved away from his recent fare and, as criminal lawyer Mickey Haller, oozed charisma, authority and occasionally emotion. In many ways the expectations for the film were low, with many assuming a by-the-books Thriller but McConaughey excelled in the lead and since this point, it is hard to ignore the shot of adrenaline his career has seemingly received. Since Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey has appeared in a string of revered films from the acclaimed 2011 dark comedy (starring Jack Black) Bernie, to the film that actually urged Nolan to seek him as the lead for Interstellar in Jeff Nichols’ award winning and critically acclaimed Mud, a film justifiably placed on many people’s top 10 of 2012.
That same year, in a supporting turn in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, as strip club owner Dallas (an irony considering his lack of shirt), McConaughey hinted at a range in his performance offering undeniable sex appeal but deeper-seated emotions. While his starring turn in William Friedkin’s shocking Killer Joe offered him a darker, sadistic character and he chilled the blood with one glance. In many ways you might mark the McConaissance down to a few factors, be it having something to prove, picking the right projects or just opting for variety. Fact is the sweeping generalizations made of McConaughey’s acting ability were made in response to a string of roles where he played to one type. If anything his recent film roles, like a cinematic rubix cube, have constantly altered and twisted. Even in the case of Lee Daniels’ polarizing The Paperboy, it seems that the actor has relished a greater outreach of roles that showcase his understated ability.
And with the passing years this has only grown in enormity with a small but slick turn in Martin Scorsese’s searing satire The Wolf of Wall Street (2014) and obviously the actor’s grandest achievement in this year’s true life HIV Drama Dallas Buyers Club. Playing Ron Woodroof, an initially homophobic and confrontational rodeo cowboy who was diagnosed with aids, McConaughey showed a massive commitment to the role. Losing a drastic 47 pounds and staying indoors to get the look of his skin right. His equal parts appealing and angry performance made for a fantastic core to a rather defiant human picture and won McConaughey an Academy Award at the 86th Academy Awards this past March. In a matter of a few years, this win marked how one actor had gone from an easy joke to Hollywood hot property.
Then you have HBO’s masterpiece show True Detective. Where McConaughey played Rustin “Rust” Cohle, a reclusive, pessimistic but effective detective, paired with Woody Harrelson’s straighter but just as combustive Martin “Marty” Hart. Both executively produced the acclaimed series and McConaughey in particular was a sensational standout. His drawling philosophical dialogue provided challenging themes and the character’s minimalism made him all the more fascinating. McConaughey was simply absorbing in the part and again the character and series marked just how adept the (in real life rather laid back and cool) actor was at embracing darkness. It was further proof of the hidden depths behind the underrated actor. It is here we arrive at the feet of arguably McConaughey’s biggest role yet and, in the actor’s own words, “the most ambitious thing [Director Christopher Nolan] ever done”.
The McConaissance may be a playful term given to the recent rebirth of Matthew McConaughey’s career but the past has been far from playful. Here is an actor many derided, laughed at and undermined in the past but if his recent body of sterling work says anything, it is that critics should always keep our words soft and sweet, that way they are easily digested later. Matthew McConaughey has drastically transformed himself in the eyes of a movie going public. His performances have chipped away at a place we did not know existed within the Texas born talent.
And with his next project being under the direction of Gus Van Sant, in suicide Drama Sea of Trees (2015), it seems set to continue. Perhaps this is the reason for his evolution, the right movies have displayed more than we ever gave (or would have given) McConaughey credit for. It may not have been an easy ride to the top but as Interstellar lands in cinemas, the scope has never been larger for Matthew McConaughey and the McConaissance has ceased being an idea but is a reality and the future is set to be “alright, alright, alright”.