This feature originally ran in June 2016. We’re reposting today in anticipation of Gold, the latest installment in the “McConaissance”.
Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress.
Before 2010, we likely would have never even considered a list like this about Matthew McConaughey, the lanky surfer dude with a croaky Southern accent and a mile-wide grin who limped through the late ’90s and early 2000s in lazy romcoms (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch) and ill-advised action vehicles (Sahara). Despite that, McConaughey has remained a fascinating actor throughout his career, combining a winning, approachable charm with an enigmatic intensity that lets him transition snugly between leading man and inventive character actor.
With that kind of versatility, it’s no wonder the aptly dubbed “McConaissance” of the early 2010s has become the stuff of legend. Since 2011, he’s been in hit after hit, turning in one bravura performance after another. In fact, his command of Rust Cohle’s cynical nihilism in the first season of True Detective shows he can craft revolutionary performances on the small screen as well, all while remaining on Hollywood’s A-list. There’s certainly a gossipy level of surprise that comes with our undue fascination with this recent run of amazing work, informed entirely by his previous reputation as a Keanu Reeves-type dumb hunk. After all, how could a guy who looked like the glassy-eyed clerk who wouldn’t leave you alone at Sunglass Hut become one of the most intriguing actors of his generation?
With the impending release of McConaughey’s latest film, an odd-couple treasure hunt into the Indonesian jungle, we decided to revisit some of the actor’s finest roles. Sure, most of them take place during the McConaissance, but we found a few genre gems that stretched the romcom actor’s capabilities further than could be expected. Now, without further ado, let’s get listin’, man, L-I-S-T-I-N.
10. Joe Cooper
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar may have led many to scratch their heads at its ponderous combination of New Age-y claptrap about the power of love and hard sci-fi, but McConaughey’s central performance as Coop makes the whole scenario that much more believable. While Coop is not one of McConaughey’s deeply affected character performances, it’s refreshing to see him bring such nuance and intensity to a straightforward lead role.
There’s nothing magical about Coop, after all: He’s a father before he’s an astronaut or the savior of mankind, as evidenced by his tear-jerking breakdown as he watches the tapes of his children growing up without him. At all times, McConaughey imbues Coop with a sense of singular purpose, working to save his daughter when everything around him says to give up and plan for mankind’s rebirth instead of saving everyone he knows. By placing such a naturalistic presence as McConaughey at the center of so much scientific hokum, Nolan smartly provided the audience with the relatable emotional core it needed to navigate Interstellar’s heady ideas and space-time conundrums.
Alright, Alright! Alright?: “Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.”
09. Fenton/Adam Meiks
One of McConaughey’s strong early roles came in Bill Paxton’s Southern-Gothic thriller Frailty, in which he pulled double duty as spurned religious zealot Fenton Meiks and (spoilers for the end) his psychopathic brother, Adam Meiks. As Fenton, McConaughey is convincingly meek and introspective, clearly torn between his love for his family and their psychotic murders in the name of God. When the final-act heel turn comes, though, McConaughey turns on a dime to become the wide-eyed, resolute Adam, filled to the brim with glorious purpose.
It’s interesting watching Frailty in the context of True Detective, seeing the ways in which McConaughey spices up the kind of police interrogation/flashback storytelling that can easily fall flat in lesser hands. In the right scenes, McConaughey can command a room without doing much of anything at all – as with Powers Boothe’s resolute detective, we hang on every word McConaughey utters.
Alright, Alright! Alright?: Adam’s psychotic mantra as he dispatches his victims at the end: “God will protect.”
08. Denton Van Zan
Reign of Fire (2000)
There are two types of Matthew McConaughey performances: the doe-eyed introspectives, like Rust Cohle and Mud, and the big, blustery scene stealers who demand attention. Denton Van Zan in Rob Bowman’s 2000 post-apocalyptic dragon flick Reign of Fire is most assuredly the latter: With a shaved head, bushy beard, tattoos, and big ol’ stogie in his mouth, McConaughey puts 110% of his considerable charisma into Van Zan, a bombastic American military leader who helps Christian Bale’s community fight off the dragons that have destroyed 21st century London.
It’s a big, dumb role for a big, dumb movie, but you have to admire McConaughey’s bug-eyed commitment. I mean, the guy’s playing a dragon hunter named Denton Van Zan – there’s not really that much room for nuance. What results is a performance so gloriously, transcendentally hammy that you wonder if the dragons destroyed all the buildings in post-apoc London or if McConaughey just chewed through so much scenery there’s nothing left.
Alright, Alright! Alright?: “There’s nothing magical about it. They’re made of flesh and blood. You take out their heart, you bring down the BEAST!”
07. Mark Hanna
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Another one of McConaughey’s showy character performances comes right at the start of Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, playing brusque, cocaine-fueled Wall Street elite Mark Hanna. Much like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, McConaughey’s Hanna is practically a one-scene wonder, whose job is to bust through the walls of the protagonist’s scruples with big, loud pronouncements about how greed is good.
With his impromptu chest-thumping and masturbation encouragement (“Pump those numbers up, those are rookie numbers in this racket. I myself, I jerk off at least … twice a day”), it’s impossible to take your eyes off his entrancing mania. In the space of about five minutes, Hanna provides a template for the amoral, hyper-competitive capitalist Leo DiCaprio’s Belfort would become. Hanna proved McConaughey’s magnetic ability to steal a film in a single scene and make his presence felt for the two and a half hours that remained.
Alright, Alright! Alright?: “Why the fuck else would you do this job? Cocaine and hookers, my friend.”
Magic Mike (2012)
Here’s one of the rare roles that effectively combined McConaughey’s newfound clout with his universally acknowledged sexiness. The controlling impresario Dallas in Steven Soderbergh’s recession-era striptease Magic Mike is pure-strain McConaughey in all his majesty. Just drape his lean, oiled body in a cowboy hat, unbuttoned leather vest, and too-tight black jeans, throw him a microphone, and slap him in front of an adoring, lusting audience, and you’ve got a recipe for, well, magic.
What’s thrilling about Dallas, just like Magic Mike itself, is the layers of pathos and genuine drama that underlie the seemingly shallow surface. As much as he provides a paternal, nurturing figure around which all the hot, lost boys of Xquisite gravitate, McConaughey never lets the other characters (or the audience) forget that Mike and the crew are there to make money for him and won’t hesitate to kick them to the curb to benefit his business. Playing both sides of that coin lets McConaughey strut his stuff both onstage and in the scene.
Alright, Alright! Alright?: “Fact is, the law says you cannot touch! But I think I see a lotta lawbreakers up in this house tonight…”
05. “Killer” Joe Cooper
Killer Joe (2011)
Deeply problematic stories and plays of charismatically abusive men terrorizing young women have become ubiquitous enough to cause some concern, and Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe is no exception. Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue with the potency and dark appeal of William Friedkin’s adaptation of Letts’ play, his second adaptation of the playwright’s after Bug. In the central role, McConaughey shows off a terrifying dark side that is atypical of most of his characters – as the detective-turned-contract-killer Joe Cooper (not to be confused with his Interstellar character, mind you).
Killer Joe is a monster, and McConaughey makes no bones about that, crafting a performance that’s disturbingly seductive in its brazenness. Never for a moment do you believe that Joe does not have complete control of any situation he is in, his strong, silent violence coming out at the first sign of resistance. That it’s such a departure from any previous McConaughey role – to play someone so downright, unrepentantly nasty – is what makes his Killer Joe so intriguing.
Alright, Alright! Alright?: “If you insult me again, I will cut your face off and wear it over my own. Do you understand?”
04. Danny Buck Davidson
Now for a McConaughey performance that’s a little less nasty and more overtly comedic, though still about murder – his cynical, self-satisfied DA Danny Buck Davidson from Richard Linklater’s quirky crime comedy Bernie. While McConaughey apparently thought he was originally cast in the lead, we’re glad he turned up as Danny Buck.
Sporting a pair of big aviator glasses and a perfectly coiffed mop of salt-and-pepper hair, McConaughey’s interactions with the supporting characters (played by the real townsfolk involved in Bernie Tiede’s real-life story) are distractingly charming, and he plays the quippy straight man to Carthage, Texas’ collective delusion that Bernie’s “too nice” to have murdered his wife. McConaughey juggles his Lincoln Lawyer-esque prosecutorial style nicely with Danny Buck’s laid-back skepticism, offering the lone voice of sanity in a town that’s too in love with his murder suspect to convict him.
Alright, Alright! Alright?: “Now one of the main things and why I have this job, and why I feel like I’m good at it is, you see, I’m naturally suspicious.”
03. David Wooderson
Dazed and Confused (1993)
We just had to go there – before the McConaissance, before the romcoms, or being crowned People’s Sexiest Man Alive 2005, the world caught its first glimpse of Matthew McConaughey in the closest we can get to his natural state: a magnetic stoner in Richard Linklater’s 1993 hangout movie Dazed and Confused. Wooderson was that guy we all knew in high school, the older kid who got way too much pleasure from being the “big brother” to all the younger teens, but we tolerated because he got us booze.
While McConaughey has had better performances, none of his characters have had quite the cultural impact of Wooderson. From his casual trolling for jailbait (“Thing about high school girls – I get older, they stay the same age”) to his pink jeans and tight t-shirt, Wooderson became an indelible icon that would follow McConaughey around for decades to come.
Alright, Alright! Alright?: “Let me tell you this, the older you do get the more rules they’re gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin’ man, L-I-V-I-N.”
02. Ron Woodroof
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Ron Woodroof is the role for which McConaughey finally won the Best Actor Oscar, practically codifying the McConaissance into law. It’s easy to see why, too: He lost 47 pounds to play Woodroof (also explaining his gaunt appearance in Wolf of Wall Street and Interstellar, which he likely shot around the same time), grew a mustache, and played a man dying of AIDS – that’s Oscar bait Bingo in anyone’s book.
Still, while the film surrounding his performance isn’t quite as revolutionary as he is, McConaughey’s commitment to his craft is undeniable. As Woodroof, he has to wear a lot of hats (most of them Stetsons): dying man, drug smuggler, righteous rebel, and recovering homophobe/transphobe, among a million others. Just as Woodroof’s diagnosis changes him, McConaughey’s transformation is equally compelling, and it’s amazing to see him immerse himself so fully into a role. Sure, the physical changes and subject matter may seem gimmicky and forced, but McConaughey pours everything of himself into the character.
Alright, Alright! Alright?: McConaughey’s Ron Woodroof is the epitome of stubborn righteousness: “Let me give y’all a little news flash. There ain’t nothin’ out there can kill fuckin’ Ron Woodroof in 30 days.”
The McConaissance hadn’t yet reached the height of its popularity, but Jeff Nichols’ rugged, contemplative Mud provided McConaughey with perhaps his most challenging and effective lead performance to date. Far from the gleaming, shirtless romcom roles of a few years prior, McConaughey sneers and squints through a dirt-caked face and yellowed teeth as a homeless drifter hiding out along the Arkansas River, hoping to reconnect with his old girlfriend.
McC’s never been better than in Nichols’ amazingly compelling Southern-Gothic masterpiece, modulating his inherent laissez-faire naturalism in a way that suggests a deep well of melancholy we could never have expected from the star of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Acting both as a father figure to the film’s two adolescent leads and as a lost, little boy in his own right, Mud offers McConaughey the vehicle he needed to remind us that he’s not just a pair of glassy, stoned eyes and a glistening six-pack: He’s a cinematic force to be reckoned with.
Alright, Alright! Alright?: McConaughey sums up Mud’s magical-realist perspective on life to his young friends: “There are fierce powers at work in the world, boys. Good, evil, poor luck, best luck. As men, we’ve got to take advantage where we can.”