A little over a year ago, I, like many of you, had more or less written off Matthew McConaughey. His career started with a bang when he appeared as townie David Wooderson in Richard Linklater's Dazed & Confused, a role for which he would come to be identified for a number of years. Much like the other actor who got his first big break in an ensemble piece, Sean Penn, McConaughey seemed to want to differentiate himself, and in 1996 & 1997, he appeared in two of the headier summer blockbusters to come down the pike, A Time to Kill & Contact. McConaughey didn't appear content to wallow in the typical action fare, and even his appearance in the vastly overrated Amistad all but confirmed as much. He wanted to be viewed as an actor and not a movie star.
Then something strange happened. In 2001, he starred with Jennifer Lopez in the forgettable, but hugely successful romantic comedy The Wedding Planner. Although he would appear in some decent films over the next ten years (Frailty, Tropic Thunder & We Are Marshall), he was mostly gaining notoriety for appearing in a never ending series of interchangeable romantic comedies: How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Fool's Gold, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, etc. They were only notable for featuring posters in which McConaughey demonstrated the inability to stand up on his own...
McConaughey looked as if he was headed for obscurity. Even his attempt to launch a franchise, Sahara, is now mostly remembered for the nonsensical legal battle that raged for years after the film flopped. He made some direct to video disasters like TipToes & Surfer, Dude that attracted attention solely based on how awful they were. He was also gaining attention in the press for his nude bongo playing antics & seemed to be a joke to other celebrities, mainly due to his frequent shirtlessness.
Then in 2011, he made a small film called The Lincoln Lawyer that gained a modicum of attention based on the fact that it wasn't a rom-com and wasn't flat out terrible. This seemed to signal to some that McConaughey may have been trying to break out of the vicious cycle that had consumed him for the better part of a decade.
For me, it was 2012's Bernie that first made me take notice of the fact that McConaughey might be coming back. Working once again with Dazed director Linklater, McConaughey ditched all pretenses of vanity and went for broke in a small but memorable role, finally showing that he was content just do work on good films again, no matter how big the role. It was a bold move for McConaughey, and one that he would double down on when he worked with William Friedkin on the film adaptation of Tracy Letts' Killer Joe. Here again, McConaughey wasn't hampered by his desire to always be the good guy, and played a downright despicable human being. It's a great performance in a very good film.
Later that summer, he was the stand-out in one of my favorite films of last year, Magic Mike. What made his performance here so revelatory for me is that he was very clearly playing with his image. He brought all of the things to the forefront of his performance that he had become known for (the bongo playing, the shirtlessness, the seemingly good guy with ulterior motives) and utilized them in a way I didn't think he was capable. His charisma was finally being put to proper use, and it elevated the entire film around him.
He finished off 2012 with The Paperboy, one of the worst films of last year, but one in which McConaughey, for the first time in a long time, managed to acquit himself of nicely. Thankfully he was surrounded by the scenery chewing antics of John Cusack & Nicole Kidman, and his performance as a quietly closeted homosexual in the deep south of the 1960s managed to be one of the only things worth talking about in that awful, awful film. It was the last sign we needed to know he was back... He had managed to be the best thing about a terrible film.
McConaughey started 2013 off with a bang, appearing in easily the best film of the first half of the year, Mud. Here he shows depth and emotion, and pulls off the kind of suspicious character that most movie stars can't play. I find it interesting that later this summer, Matt Damon would attempt a similar feat of dubiousness with Elysium, and end up getting shown up by his former punchline. Damon is the kind of actor that you just know is going to do the right thing in the end, but McConaughey manages to plant doubt in the audience as to whether or not he really is the good guy he purports to be. He also showed he had a great sense of humor by appearing in Butch Walker's music video Synthesizers, reprising his role as David Wooderson.
The rest of his year is also shaping up nicely, with a supporting role in Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street & the lead role in Dallas Buyer's Club, a role for which he dropped down to a gaunt and sickly-looking 100 pounds. It smells a bit like Oscar-baiting to me, but I'm also okay with it, because I do think he deserves recognition for managing to put together a run of films since The Lincoln Lawyer that rivals the best run of any actor over a three year period. He also managed to land the lead in Christopher Nolan's upcoming film Interstellar, which will likely follow in the footsteps of Inception as a critical and commercial success.