“Dazed and Confused” (1993)
For many, Matthew McConaughey’s first film role is still his most memorable. McConaughey plays David Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s genre-defining stoner comedy “Dazed and Confused,” a guy in his twenties who won’t stop hanging around his old high school smoking weed and cruising for girls. Wooderson is perpetually spaced out and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of future prospects, but he has his own brand of wisdom, and if nothing else, his perpetual calm is inspiring. Wooderson becomes a more important figure than he initially seems, taking the freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) under his wing and showing him the ropes on the hazy pot-fueled night that follows their last day of school. Plus, McConaughey’s very first words on film are still his most famous: “Aright, alright, alright.”
McConaughey stars opposite Jodie Foster as a fellow scientist and love interest in this Robert Zemeckis-directed science-fiction drama. His character, Palmer Joss, is burdened with the film’s most emotional dilemma: The choice of whether to let his love go into the space-traveling machine to see the supposed extraterrestrials or selfishly keep her on Earth with him. Unlike Foster’s character, McConaughey’s character actually believes that science and God can co-exist, and his wide-eyed optimism provides the kind of charm that has defined much of the actor’s career. Although his work here hinges on the charisma that made him a star of the romantic-comedy genre, Foster’s ultimate choice to ship off to space allows McConaughey to play up a sense of longing and heartache that first suggested he was capable of way more than playing second fiddle in a romance.
“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” (2003)
Do you remember a time before the “McConaissance” think pieces, before even the need for them, back when we liked Matthew McConaughey with the thoughtless abandon of innocence? That time was “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” In the laughably convoluted 2003 rom-com, magazine writer Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) pitches an article about getting a guy to dump her in 10 days, just as good time ad guy Benjamin Barry (McConaughey) bets that he can make any woman fall for him in the same time frame. All that saves the movie from its premise, not to mention those names, is Hudson and McConaughey’s chemistry. The romantic scene in the bathroom of Ben’s childhood home best demonstrates how thrillingly natural the connection is between the two, as their first honest instance of intimacy is punctured by nervous, airy laughs. While McConaughey’s lazy charm would soon fail him (lest we forget, “Fool’s Gold” did not strike twice), “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” bottles his breezy drawl and sells it with the force of a Macy’s perfume kiosk.
“The Lincoln Lawyer” (2011)
At the dawn of the actor’s dramatic comeback lies this criminally overlooked legal thriller based on the novel of the same name from bestselling author Michael Connolly. McConaughey effortlessly steps into the role of the author’s famous lawyer Mickey Haller with a confident swagger that only he could pull off. The actor has never been more enviably charismatic or powerful as he is here, relishing in the character’s self-assurance without ever going overboard into full-blown cockiness. As with so many characters in McConaughey’s oeuvre, Connolly is too cool for school yet still believable as a hardworking individual. Once the lawyer’s charming facade is rattled after he takes on an abuse case that slowly begins to intertwine with a crime from years past, McConaughey really comes alive, filling every instance of doubt with an agony that rips his character apart. Whether you know it or not, McConaughey “the actor” starts here.
“Killer Joe” (2011)
An underseen opus from playwright Tracy Letts and beloved director William Friedkin, “Killer Joe” is a harrowing neo-noir starring Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple and Gina Gershon opposite McConaughey in one of his career bests. With a longstanding debt looming over trailer park-dwelling drug dealer Chris (Hirsch), he decides to hire a hitman known as Killer Joe (McConaughey) to kill his mother and collect the insurance payout. Unable to pay the retainer to keep Joe, Chris and his family agree to let Joe “date” Dottie (Temple), Chris’ innocent and out-of-touch younger sister with a propensity for sleepwalking. But when treacherous lies are uncovered and false pretenses fall away, McConaughey kicks his karmic retribution up to 10 for an unrelenting and masterfully performed final act. You’ll never look at chicken wings the same way again.
In this drama from “Take Shelter” director Jeff Nichols, McConaughey plays the titular Mud, an escaped fugitive living off the grid in a boat lodged between the branches of a tree. His anonymous life is disrupted when two boys named Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) discover the boat and want it for themselves. Mud promises to give it to them as long as they help him by making runs into town for food and supplies. Mud comes and goes with an almost supernatural mystique, and his dark and brooding persona is the prototype for many of McConaughey’s more recent roles. Mud becomes an unorthodox mentor to the two boys as they try to make the best of their impoverished lives in rural Arkansas. As his shady and mysterious past is slowly revealed, McConaughey becomes the centerpiece of this compelling coming-of-age narrative.
“Magic Mike” (2012)
As the story goes, McConaughey was convinced he’d get an Oscar nomination for “Magic Mike.” No, not for his hysterical yet riveting turn as Dallas, the Florida-based stripper/strip club owner with an eye — among other things — for the big time. McConaughey expected a nod for Best Original Song. After insisting on a scene devoted to his own striptease, McConaughey holed up in a hotel with music supervisor Frankie Pine and cranked out “Ladies of Tampa,” a simple little melody with a catchy hook tailor-made for Southern-style crooning. Does the fact that McConaughey acted and stripped, wrote and performed, danced and gyrated throughout “Magic Mike” make his performance all the more credible? Yes, actually, because you can see his commitment to the role in every expression, chord and thrust. Dallas had to be an utterly magnetic presence for any of the film to work, and McConaughey found that within himself, plus a little extra. And that little extra makes his role unforgettable (and sorely missed in the sequel, “Magic Mike XXL”).
“Dallas Buyers Club” (2013)
In the role that cemented him as an Oscar-winning actor, McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, an electrician and hustler living in Dallas, Texas who acquires HIV/AIDS from unprotected sex with women. Surprised because he is heterosexual, Woodroof finally takes a look at his life and decides to take action with the problem he now has, but only after a serious downward spiral threatens to rob him of whatever time he has left. McConaughey’s transformation here is remarkable, mainly his much-publicized weight loss, but what’s even more effective is his decision to never turn Woodroof into a saint. The character saved hundreds of lives, but he never lost his acerbic and combative personality. McConaughey’s refusal to paint the man as a good guy creates an unbridled performance of raw and intense energy. It’s an Oscar-winning performance well-deserved.