Matthew McConaughey is a cinematic enigma. His natural good looks (wonderfully tousled blond locks and baby blue eyes) have never stopped him from working, but they have gotten in the way of a meaningful career, relegating him to playing cardboard romantic leads, forgettable action heroes and stoners. Finally, in 2012, McConaughney was able to break out of this pattern and make his natural charm and appealing face work for him, not against him.
Since he burst on the screen in 1993 with his iconic performance as David “Alright, Alright, Alright” Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, McConaughey has always had an undeniable screen presence. Considering his matinee idol visage, his Texan drawl and his winning persona, it’s no wonder that Hollywood came knocking. In the five years that followed his debut , McConaughey worked for directors such as John Sayles, Joel Schumacher, Robert Zemekis, Steven Spielberg and Linklater again in various predictable roles, a character actor stuck in the body of a serviceable leading man. Gradually though, McConaughey began to show that he was capable of more.
Although perfectly pleasant roles such as the male lead in The Wedding Planner ignited his career, it was in films such as Frailty, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and We Are Marshall that allowed him to grow as an actor. These performances were long overshadowed by showy roles in forgettable blockbusters (and box office failures) like Reign of Fire, Sahara, Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold and Ghost of Girlfriends Past. Finally, in 2011, McConaughey broke out of the dreck with a tremendous performance as the slick Mike Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer, an under appreciated courtroom thriller that marks the beginning of the McConaughey renaissance.
McConaughey rolled into 2012 with a strong supporting role in Bernie, his third collaboration with Linklater. This black comedy about a murder in a small Texas town went on to become an arthouse success and proved fruitful for both actor and director. McConaughey plays Danny Buck Davidson, an overconfident district attorney who typically utilizes his good looks to smooth over cases and juries. Faced with this rare case that is not open and shut, Danny quickly reveals unexpected depths of cunning.
McConaughey skillfully conveys his character’s building realization that he will be called upon to do more than go through the motions. He masterfully interacts with and manipulates the biased townspeople and displays his legal acumen by applying for a strategic change of venue. When Danny manages to get the trial moved to another town, Bernie is convicted. McConaughey manages to make Danny’s transformation both riveting and believable.
Magic Mike, McConaughey’s next film of 2012, was by far his most mainstream. Under Steven Soderbergh’s direction, McConaughey plays Dallas, a retired stripper turned emcee and owner of the all-male Xquisite Strip Club. While Dallas lives life to the extreme and revels in the chaos that the lifestyle brings, McConaughey’s performance as the aging party boy contains unexpected pathos. Like Channing Tatum’s Magic Mike, Dallas also has big dreams, working tirelessly toward opening a new club in Miami. McConaughey gets to show off his goods while playing a character whom he injects with layers of complexity—the best of all possible worlds for him.
In Killer Joe, McConaughey gives what is perhaps his most inspired performance of the year, playing the notorious “Killer” Joe Cooper, a police detective who has been known to pick up a few contracts on the side. His Joe is a calculating assassin, cool and controlled on the outside, but a madman underneath. McConaughey leverages his good looks and charm in his forceful wooing a young virgin who becomes part of his compensation. With any other actor, this arrangement would be unbearably creepy, but McConaughey manages to seduce the audience as well as Dottie, all the while providing glimpses of the character’s deep-seeded madness.
Once again McConaughey expertly explores the many facets of a rich character. When Cooper finally loses his cool in the final act of the film, audiences witness the most intense and brutal final act of a movie in 2012. McConaughey has come a long way from The Wedding Planner.
In one of the most polarizing films of 2012, McConaughey also tackled the supporting role of Ward Jansen in Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy. An attractive, smart, and talented reporter in a small Florida town, Ward is an enigma to the locals who wonder why he hasn’t married and settled down. Of course, Ward carries a secret (he is a homosexual who is a sadomasochist) that McConaughey manages to hint at through his skillful performance. Though on the surface Ward is pleasant and conscientious, McConaughey has him walk with hunched shoulders to convey his mental burdens. In a tour de force performance, McConaughey conveys the thoughtful sadness of a character tortured by raging conflicts beneath his affable surface.
Needless to say, after such a year, Matthew McConaughey should be hearing his name read out on Oscar night this Sunday. Were the movies too controversial? Too arty? Is McConaughey still not considered a serious actor? Whatever the reason, we take comfort in the fact that he will be rewarded next year for his recent career resurgence. Slated to be released this April is Mud, the latest film from indie auteur Jeff Nichols, in which McConaughey plays a escaped convict who befriends two teenage boys as he struggles to reunite with his true love (played by Reese Witherspoon). After that, he’s lined up a supporting role in Martin Scorese’s The Wolf of Wall Street opposite Leonardo DiCaprio.
However, a 2014 acting nomination will most likely come from another project. In Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey is set to tackle the true-life story of Ron Woodroof, a homophobic good old boy who is unexpectedly diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and given just weeks to live. McConaughey underwent a complete physical transformation, losing over 40 pounds, to play Woodroof, who helped himself and others by aggressively seeking alternative treatments not sanctioned by the FDA and the pharmaceutical establishment. McConaughey fans take note— 2014 will be the year this hard-working actor gets his due.