McConaissance Man

Matthew McConaughey has been nominated for an Oscar for his lead performance in Dallas Buyers Club, which may come as a surprise to those who only recall him from movies like How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days and Sahara. The Tramp, however, feels this is an accolade long overdue for an actor who has had an incredible 3 years.

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In the last three years Matthew McConaughey has turned in a succession of incredible performances across nine films and two TV shows. Dallas Buyers Club – in UK cinemas today – is his latest, for which he is attracting awards glory including a coveted Oscar nod for best actor. Whilst the other nominees – Christian Bale, Bruce Dern, Chiwetel Ejiofor and in particular Leonardo DiCaprio – are also deserving of their nominations, I wonder how any Oscar voter could ignore McConaughey’s recent body of work and award the statuette to anyone else.

Let’s head back in time a moment to 2010, the year of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, a film that failed to set screens alight, and for which McConaughey in particular was lambasted.  This is Rolling Stone’s view; “Matthew McConaughey, who hit a comedy low (I thought) in Fools Gold, sinks ever lower..” It felt like McConaughey, who had been introduced to the moviegoing public as a successor to Paul Newman, had hit a career and box office high with How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days, a charming – if slight – rom-com helped along significantly by his chemistry with Kate Hudson, and had then started to slide slowly down the greasy Hollywood pole from star to joke.  It seemed that McConaughey, despite switching between romantic and action roles, fluff and more interesting projects throughout his career, was washed up.

Which may be why some took note in 2012, when after a year’s break from cinema screens, he turned up in The Lincoln Lawyer in a rolewith echoes of his earlier role in excellent A Time To Kill, where he played a family man and Southern lawyer.  In The Lincoln Lawyer McConaughey takes cases from the back of his car (the Lincoln of the title),  and faces a moral dilemma that leads him to forgo financial gain  in favour of doing the right thing. Its a subtle, nuanced performance with enough charm to carry the film. One to watch if you have the chance.

However it wasn’t The Lincoln Lawyer that really grabbed my attention that year, but the other two films he starred in, William Friedkin’s Killer Joe and Richard Linklater’s Bernie.

Bernie (actually a 2011 film, although I didn’t see it until 2012, and UK cinemas didn’t see it until 2013) is a MostlyFilm favourite that we have written about in the past.  McConaughey’s glorious turn, however, was not particularly noted – a shame because, alongside the real life locals who play versions of themselves, he steals the show. Sporting a great set of false teeth, a grey wig that wouldn’t look out of place in a joke box, oversized sensible glasses and an array of terrible suits, he is utterly believable as real life district attorney and ‘crime fighter’ Danny Buck.  In a role that could quite easily have been panto, or cruel caricature in another actors hands, McConaughey takes this fantastical – yet real – character and gives him all the dimensions you need to believe in his motivations and for him to win you over, even if you are rooting for the film’s titular hero.

If you haven’t seen Killer Joe, you should change that. Certainly , it’s a flawed film, that polarises audiences, with many viewers finding it distasteful,   a hard film to watch, with a relentless bleakness and cynicism, a  film that  that starts dark and only gets darker. Yet regardless of your view of the film overall, McConaughey is undeniably brilliant as the title character. Again, this is a role that could so easily have slipped into pantomime, yet McConaughey masterfully commands both the screen and the other characters in every scene he’s in.  Not since Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter, has cinema had such an enigmatic and thoroughly chilling villain.  McConaughey is magnetically awful and utterly compellingly in every way. That  he did not receive awards recognition for this role is an oversight for which I would hope award givers feel suitably ashamed and are looking to make up for this time around.

It would be possible to consider this good year a fluke, but his role choices in 2013 and 2014 make it clear that it wasn’t. In 2013 McConaughey starred in the title role of Jeff Nichols’ Mud – a Whistle Down The Wind style coming of age tale. McConaughey’s Mud is self-aware and complicated – a charming liar who wants to do the right thing even as he understands that the time to do so passed long ago.

In Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike and Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy McConaughey had supporting rather than leading roles, but made no less impact. In Mike he stole the show as Dallas, the preening, body-beautiful male stripping guru. Soderbergh and McConaughey deftly take this father figure and turn it upside down to reveal him for the dark, selfish, corrupting influence that he really is. McConaughey has a blast and enjoys the opportunity to poke fun at his old image as the vain leading man, looking for any excuse to remove his shirt and display his torso. Meanwhile in The Paperboy he played Ward Jansen, good son, good brother and good reporter, returning home to sniff out injustice and set it straight but derailed by his own self-loathing, a gay man punishing himself for his sexuality, cruelly reflecting the views of the society he lives in, unable to see himself through his brother’s eyes as the hero and beautiful man that he really is. Personally I didn’t think   much of The Paperboy, however McConaughey turns in a great performance yet again.

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The variety of roles that McConaughey has undertaken and delivered so brilliantly continue this year, commencing with a short, film stealing cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street. For those who haven’t seen it I won’t spoil it, but the trailer really doesn’t do that chest thumping justice. And then there’s HBO’s True Detective – the bleakest TV show I have seen for a long time, with McConaughey its nilhistic heart. Playing against Woody Harrelson, an acting pairing I would like to see more of please, he portrays his character Rust Cohle in two time frames – Battling his personal demons whilst hunting a serial killer who is ritually slaying young women. Part of what compels you to watch the show is wondering what happens to make the Rust of the past the Rust of the future, and again McConaughey portrays a character with an inner darkness that colours his life and self-image. It’s a commanding performance and one that should not be missed.

As I said earlier, McConaughey was once hailed as the new Paul Newman. Early roles in films like Lone Star, A Time To Kill and Frailty hinted at the diversity he was capable of and his real talent, displaying an inner darkness that may have been obscured by his years of romcom coasting.  Personally I would suggest his subtle but scene stealing acting is more in-line with Robert Mitchum’s than Newman’s. But then again maybe I am just lazily mentally linking two actors with a shared love of the bongos.

 

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2 thoughts on “McConaissance Man

  1. He was also really good in the sweaty crime drama Frailty back in 2001, directed by Bill Paxton. Or was it Pullman? Nope, Paxton.

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