What a difference a few years can make, eh? Prior to 2011, Matthew McConaughey’s name would usually have been quickly followed or immediately preceded by words like “shirtless,” “dire rom-com,” “nude bongo-playing” or “paycheck gig,” but here he is in 2014 heading up one of the year’s most massive movies with “Interstellar,” and doing so as the Academy’s reigning Best Actor. In fact, McConaughey’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes of integrity has been so remarkable he’s gifted hacky scribes like us not just with the phrase “McConaissance,” but a lexicographical template for similar phenomena in the future. So far we’ve had the (Michael) Keatonaissance, the Reesurgence (Witherspoon), while we’re pulling for the (Jake) Gyllenaissance and the (Scarlett) Johannaissance to get their official recognition as well. Sorry to all the actors out there swimming upstream whose names don’t lend themselves to -naissance-ization, but really, you should have thought of that.
There’s a handy caesura in McConaughey’s career that marks the end of the “arrested for playing percussion while being naked and high” period and the beginning of the “award-winning, respected, versatile leading man” bit. The last film of the doldrums was 2009’s “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” which was so much old rope to McConaughey; one of those films in which the most taxing plot development is how screenwriters were going to find an excuse to have him take his shirt off (can’t remember how they managed it seeing as he’s not a surfer or a submariner therein and it’s set in winter, but pretty sure they do). Then there’s a couple years’ pause, during which time McConaughey settled down, got married and started a family. And come 2011, he’s back on screens, fully clothed throughout the runtime of Brad Furman’s absurd but entertaining “The Lincoln Lawyer.” It’s a small, sleaze-edged film in which every character is some kind of second-rate hustler, but McConaughey is just terrific, and following it up with Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” and William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” sure didn’t hurt.
Since then it’s been a steady ascent and McConaughey hasn’t put a foot wrong (even his misfire from this period, Lee Daniels’ ludicrous “The Paperboy,” is a catastrophically interesting misfire). From sending up his man-meat reputation fondly in Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike” to embodying the bayou wildman in Jeff Nichols’ “Mud,” to losing all that weight and gaining all that silverware for “The Dallas Buyers Club,” to even carving out a showy little cameo for himself in Scorsese’s brashest film to date “The Wolf of Wall Street,” McConaughey’s film catalogue since 2011 has been little short of mouthwatering. And that’s before we even talk about his revelatory turn in the peerless “True Detective,” a role which, more than any one of those single films above, cemented his newly re-established credibility as an actor of genuine grit and commitment.
After all that, he could be forgiven, especially in something as star-heavy and visual effects-laden as Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” for doing a little phoning in. But perhaps the biggest surprise of that film is that McConaughey finds room within its excesses to add some actorly fireworks, gifting it with one of its most affecting scenes. It’s a salutory reminder of how much he can bring to a film when engaged, as he has been for the last few years without fail. But even prior to that it wasn’t all turgid beachside adventures (though there were far too many of those), so we thought we’d take a look into that half-remembered past and dig out Matthew McConaughey’s 5 best pre-McConaissance titles. Alright, alright, alright.
“Dazed and Confused” (1993)
There are two 2014 movies that deal primarily with the passage of time, albeit in radically, galactically different ways: Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” and Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” But the star of one worked with the director of the other over twenty years ago in an epochal movie about a rite of passage, “Dazed and Confused.” Not only did this ’70s music-soaked, pot-stained coming of age tale launch McConaughey’s career (and his “alright, alright, alright” catchphrase), it also for better or worse defined a certain part of his laid-back slacker appeal. Appearing here alongside other future stars Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg and Parker Posey, among many others, McConaughey’s David Wooderson is an endearing character, partly because there’s an almost tragic edge to his hedonism. He’s the guy who’s already graduated, hanging round school on the last day to get high, score chicks and desperately, for one more day, stave off any encroaching future responsibility, and it’s McConaughey’s charm that stops Wooderson being an all-out sleaze. Maybe the best ever evocation of that brief fleeting moment when you get to play with grown-up toys like drugs and sex without any real sense of the grown-up consequences, Wooderson is the fly trapped in amber here. Linklater’s next film will be spiritual sequel “That’s What I’m Talking About,” which will no doubt continue the preoccupation of the ‘Before’ trilogy and “Boyhood” with time. But that thematic concern started all the way back with “Dazed and Confused,” and specifically with McConaughey’s character. After all, even in “Interstellar” you don’t get anything as succinct a summations of fundamental time paradoxes as, “that’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.”
“A Time To Kill” (1996)
In order to have a career rebirth, you have to have a prior period of success. For McConaughey, that period was probably the mid-to-late ’90s and was largely ushered in (for a wider audience anyway) by his lead role in this starry, glossy, polemical John Grisham adaptation from director Joel Schumacher. As subtle as a sledgehammer yet undeniably effective, not to mention enraging, it’s a potboilery legal drama with McConaughey as a crusading white Southern lawyer defending a father, played by Samuel L Jackson, on a murder charge, the kicker being that he murdered the two white supremacists who raped his ten-year-old daughter and left her for dead. With the moral issues painted in a big red letters (usually K, K and K) and burning crosses across the movie, there’s not a whole lot of room for nuance, but McConaughey is admirably restrained and decent (even turning down Sandra Bullock’s advances) playing a man pushed to the limits of his convictions, endangering his own family and standing within the community for an ideal. And it’s a film packed with showy cameos, from Kiefer Sutherland as a violent KKK asshole, to his dad Donald as a drunken genteel lawyer who rallies to the side of good, to Chris Cooper who possibly steals the movie with an impassioned plea from the stand to free the defendant, to Kevin Spacey, Charles S Dutton, Ashley Judd, Brenda Fricker and a surprising good-guy role for Oliver Platt. But McConaughey proved he could hold his own against so much heavyweight grandstanding, and he did it with a kind of understated charisma and intelligence, not to mention absurd good looks, that had people hailing him as the next Paul Newman.
“Lone Star” (1996)
For a long time, this absolutely terrific movie from director John Sayles, an elegiac borderland drama about fathers and sons, legacy and bigotry, it felt like a outlier in McConaughey’s back catalogue. He’s not the lead (that honor falls to his “A Time To Kill” co-star, the great Chris Cooper in maybe his best performance), doesn’t even have that much screen time and plays a character who’s dead before the film even properly begins. But McConaughey’s Sheriff Buddy Deeds, the charming, corrupt but immensely popular father of Chris Cooper’s diminished-by-comparison son, is a great part, even if it’s little more than a cameo. Appearing in flashback, rocking back on his chair, drawling out his lines with his stetson pushed back and a beer in his hand, we see the manner in which Buddy Deeds built his reputation, which expanded to near-mythic status in that small dusty Texan town, and it needs someone of McConaughey’s effortless magnetism to really convince. “A Time To Kill” may have been the film that broke McConaughey wide, but it was “Lone Star” that first made me notice him, (and then spend a lot of the next 15 years wondering where that guy had gone). And perhaps it’s not even so much his individual performance as the strength of the whole film that did it (a heartfelt RIP to Elisabeth Pena who is so wonderful here and died recently at the early age of 54), but for a long time “Lone Star” was a beacon of what McConaughey could do even in a small role in an independent film. And it remains to this day one of the lesser seen films in his back catalogue, You should see it if you haven’t, especially if you ever sat through “Surfer Dude” or “Failure to Launch.”
Honestly, there was a good case to be made for “Frailty” to replace this entry in our top five, especially as it feels like a bit of a cheat to have three-fifths of this list come from a two-year period. But with “Interstellar” in cinemas right now, it felt like we couldn’t ignore the other philosophically minded sci-fi featuring fathers and daughters and mysterious messages from otherwordly beings beyond our ken in McConaughey’s filmography. Somewhat derided at the time, I always had a soft spot for “Contact,” and it’s funny how much widespread criticism of “Interstellar” can also be lodged here: it’s not nearly the visual spectacle that Nolan’s film is, but Robert Zemeckis’ attempt at the stars also ends up with the somewhat pat resolution that Love is the Most Important Thing. In many ways, in fact, McConaughey’s role, though sadly underwritten, is the most interesting in the film (though Jodie Foster brings a lovely fragility to her spiky, uncompromising scientist role) —he’s part philosopher, part priest, part love interest and somehow makes that weird mix work, even in the few scenes he’s afforded. Based on the novel by Carl Sagan, the film would always have a more inward-looking, “we are all made of stars” vibe which is undoubtedly too touchy-feely for some. But in one other way it mirrors Nolan’s film —in its unequivocal endorsement of the value of space exploration, something McConaughey’s characters in both films stand behind. And in addition to all that, you have to admire any mainstream blockbuster that attempts to overtly tackle such heady issues: in “Contact,” McConaughey’s character is little less than the personification of the science vs God debate, and if it doesn’t solve that age-old dilemma to everyone’s satisfaction, then are we perhaps (like arguably with “Interstellar”) setting our expectations a little high for the ability of a summer tentpole to change our fundamental understanding of the nature of humanity?
“Tropic Thunder” (2008)
Sandwiched in between the twin nadirs of McConaughey’s infuriatingly smug, sun-bronzed, beach bum movie career (“Surfer Dude” and “Fool’s Gold”) came this little scrap of genius, a film so unexpectedly hilarious that it marks a high watermark for almost everyone involved, which is saying something with such a celebrity cameo-strewn movie. And McConaughey’s no exception. In fact, with the possible exception of Tom Cruise turning up as an unrecognisably revolting studio honcho, McConaughey might be the one whose profile was most in need of this timely boost, and who most direly needed to re-convince the world that he could be funny. As Ben Stiller’s character’s agent, Rick Peck, McConaughey also gets to bring a light gloss of satire to a role that we presume he’s basing on quite some prior experience —his Peck is a slick, amoral smooth talker (“we gotta shave your head and get you back on the monkey bars!”), doggedly dedicated to getting his client a TiVo when in fact the world is disintegrating around him and a TiVo is pretty much the last thing he needs (unless it’s to deflect a rocket, of course). With as much verve as “Tropic Thunder” has going on —Robert Downey Jr in blackface, Jack Black, Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson are the actors stranded in the jungle and mistaken for real soldiers by a ruthless local heroin gang, for the one person in the world who hasn’t seen this film— it would be easy to make the “meanwhile back in Hollywood” bits feel like an irritating diversion. But McConaughey chews into he role with brio, a head of curls and a pastel Lacoste polo shirt, even undergoing something of a heroic last minute reversal. As much as McConaughey’s return to leading man status in serious characterful roles is very welcome, his turn here and in the likes of “The Wolf of Wall Street” also serve to remind us what a game part of an ensemble he can be.
Closest to making this top five was “Frailty,” the underrated twisty Bill Paxton-helmed serial killer thriller in which McConaughey is pretty great as the, how shall we put it, conflicted central character. But he has on occasion also shown up and been better than the material that surrounds him: there’s no reason that “Reign of Fire” which is about dragons, for heavens sake, should be as dull as it is, but McConaughey’s shaven-headed, bearded, cigar chomping Van Zan is pretty fun, and he’s also good in Spielberg‘s sloggiest effort “Amistad.” He’s solid in the little-seen ensemble indie “Thirteen Conversations about One Thing” and turned in a decent entry into the inspirational teach/coach subgenre with “We are Marshall” as well.
“Surfer Dude” with Woody Harrelson is terrible but pretty much no one saw it, while perennial meme “Tiptoes” almost transcends terrible by being such a batshit entry on anyone’s CV. So we’re going to give this dishonor to the Kate Hudson-starrer “Fool’s Gold” which is just the fucking worst.
Did we miss out your favorite pre-renaissance McConaughey gig? Let us know in the comments.