The Ascendancy of McConaughey


Few actors in Hollywood have had such a varied career as Matthew McConaughey. The critical highs and lows of his body of work are unprecedented and his rise from rom-com  staple to respectable, Academy Award nominated actor leaves many of us asking ourselves, how did this happen? How did McConaughey transform from an actor more known for taking his shirt off and being critically hammered into a versatile, likable actor who is developing a huge cult fanbase from his recent performances?

McConaughey always had the potential which was seen early in his career as Richard Linklater cast him in Dazed and Confused as David Wooderson, a stoner, drop out who doesn’t lack charm. The director initially thought McConaughey too handsome for the role but an outstanding performance meant his role was expanded hugely. The trademark, Southern accent allowed him to stand out amidst a crowd that included Ben Affleck, Jason London and Parker Posey. Some of the most memorable lines from the much loved film come from McConaughey’s Texan drawl including probably the most iconic line “That’s what I love about these college girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.” He delivers it marvelously, you believed his character and you believed this actor was going to go on to great things.


With the world as his oyster a host of directors wanted Matthew’s talents. Joel Schumacher cast him as the lead in the adaptation of the John Grisham novel A Time To Kill. It was certainly a solid performance although the film is mainly remembered for Samuel L. Jackson playing a man accused of murdering two men who killed his daughter and delivering the famous line “Yes they deserve to die, and I hope they burn in Hell!” Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg also hired McConaughey in Contact and Amistad respectively. The latter a better and more memorable performance than the former. Matthew’s early career was solid although unremarkable making safer films that do fairly well at the Box Office like U-571, The Wedding Planner, Larger Than Life and Edtv.

By the early noughties it looked as if McConaughey was content with playing it safe, making his money and then doing the next film. Frailty and Reign of Fire, each had their charms but they weren’t going to win any acting awards any time soon. However, I do have to say that McConaughey, almost unrecognisable in Reign of Fire was great fun and his death scene still counts as one of my favourites. He plodded along with rom-com How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days before one of the worst films of his career.

Sahara was an absolute disaster. Adapted from the books by Clive Cussler, the aim was to reinvent Indiana Jones for the modern age. It was going to be fronted by McConaughey as Dirk Pitt and was hoping to be a cash cow for Paramount who dreamed of a myriad of sequels as we follow our ‘new favourite action hero’ on a series of adventures. The problem was it was boring, pointless and lacked a combination of humour and heart. I know not everybody shares the anomosity that I do with 39% of people deeming it acceptable on Rotten Tomatos but I only stayed awake through Sahara by sheer hatred of the movie. I thought it was a waste of a story and I expected better from actors I admired like Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz and William H Macy. Sahara made a huge loss at the box office, failing to recoup a large amount of its $160 million budget, which doomed prospects of any future installments of the series. Sahara was dead and McConaughey’s career wasn’t looking too healthy either.


McConaughey went back to the format he had seen success with before, the romantic comedy. He went into the wilderness for five years with the odd rom-com coming out every so often. It garnered a wage and a critical bashing like the ones he’d seen before wasn’t as likely, especially for Sahara. Although these films were uninspiring they were too low on the critics’ radars to produce any actual scorn. So we saw the unremarkable Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past come and go with only an entertaining cameo in Tropic Thunder, that was originally written for Owen Wilson, to enjoy. We were all expecting this to continue and for the talents of Matthew McConaughey to be ultimately wasted.

But at the turn of the decade in 2011, directors started casting McConaughey again. He was veering away from the predictable rom-coms and trying new genres and characters. First, he played a lawyer again, but this time with a darker edge than that of his character in A Time To Kill. The Lincoln Lawyer bursted onto the scene and we saw the forgotten actor back with a vengeance in a terrific perfomance. In quick succession came a reunion with Richard Linklater in Bernie and then the performance that changed McConaughey forever, Killer Joe.

William Friedkin’s movie based on Tracy Lett’s play was one of the darkest performances you could ask for as McConaughey plays the epoynmous police detective/contract killer. His presence throughout the film is menacing yet likable until the film’s horrific denouement in which he transforms into this real monster. However, he still portrays the humour and humanity of the character in a scene which lasts in the memory and will make you think twice the next time you fancy a KFC.


McConaughey shot straight to the top of the A-List again with performances in the independent film Mud and Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. This led to the movie that now sees him Oscar nominated, and reunited with Sahara co-star Steve Zahn. Dallas Buyers Club is based on a true story as McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, an AIDs patient in the 1980s who smuggles medicine, that helps with the condition, into Texas. A strong, powerful performance where he lost a huge amount of weight. Dallas Buyers Club very well could win the Oscar, he has already won a Golden Globe for the performance, which would cap off one of the biggest career renaissances in history.

Scene stealing cameos opposite Leonardo Di Caprio in The Wolf of Wall Street continue to increase a fan base that is ever growing. These recent terrific performances will come to a head when McConaughey will star in the lead of a Christopher Nolan film. One of the most anticipated movies of the year, Interstellar will secure McConaughey’s reputation of one of the greatest actors in cinema today in what has been a journey full of highs and lows.


Author: Luke's Film Blog

I'm Luke and I love writing about movies. I shall persevere to keep expanding this blog so there's plenty of interesting content for you to explore. I hope you enjoy it. Please, take a look around and follow me on twitter @lukesfilmblog. Thanks for reading.

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