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Like a blonde feathered phoenix rising from the ashes, Matthew McConaughey’s recent roles have resurrected his once promising career, one that started way back in the late 1990’s. With any luck, he’ll strike Oscar gold this March for his starring role in Dallas Buyers Club, completing his surprising comeback.
McConaughey’s life in Hollywood began like a rocket. He shot up fast mesmerizing us with his leading man star power, and then fizzled rather abruptly. He was still making movies, but they weren’t close to the caliber as early in his career. Now, we all make mistakes. We all make bad decisions that seemingly are impossible to be undone. If one looks at McConaughey’s acting career as a metaphor for life, we can see that making our way back from those wrong turns is possible and can be even fruitful. We all want second chances and who doesn’t love watching them become a resurrection.
The Early Rise
The first time I saw McConaughey, I mean really saw him, was in Joel Schumacher’s 1996 film A Time to Kill. Sure, I had seen him before in Dazed and Confused, but his role, however memorable, was limited. In A Time to Kill, McConaughey shone like very few do in their debut lead roles. He blazed on the screen; you couldn’t take your eyes off him. He had real screen presence. The camera loved him and so, too, did audiences. My first impressions – this guy’s going to be a star.
He was Hollywood’s golden boy in those early years. McConaughey had a successful run after A Time to Kill with films like Amistad, Contact, and Edtv. He had come from virtually nowhere to working with directors like Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg and was quickly becoming the toast of the town.
Then something happened.
It all started in 2001 with The Wedding Planner. McConaughey switched gears and starred in a romantic comedy alongside Jennifer Lopez. And what followed was a slew of movies that seemingly halted the trajectory of his once budding career. How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Now I may have a personal aversion to bad romcoms, but McConaughey took cringe worthy movie after cringe worthy movie. While there were a few decent films scattered in there during that time for McConaughey and at least one gem (if you haven’t seen Frailty, you need to), he was on the outs for prime Hollywood roles. He had become a bankable romcom actor and, in a way, type-casted.
That young southern man who took Hollywood by storm was essentially in Romantic Comedy Hell. Now, this might have been fine for McConaughey. We all have to earn a paycheck and good roles are not easy to come by. But for us, the film-going public who enjoy watching good actors doing good work, we were given a raw deal. We had fallen for this blonde haired, southern drifter and now the only place to see him was in fluff. The thing we don’t know is this; was taking those roles a conscious choice or not for McConaughey? Does one romcom simply lead into the other and so on, or is there a comfort level with playing a similar character in a similar story-line collecting a familiar sized paycheck? As humans we are creatures of habit, and someone picking a creative line of work is not immune to that. Whether McConaughey chose to or not, he had become a romcom star.
Thankfully, that has all changed.
His ascent began in 2008 with a small role in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder. Sure, this was the same year as Fool’s Gold, but in Tropic Thunder McConaughey was memorable again. Then came The Lincoln Lawyer. Going back to the legal roots that got him to the penthouse of Hollywood, McConaughey began to garner legitimate buzz, this time more for his acting talents rather than solely having his shirt off.
As a result, his pattern of choosing roles had subsequently changed. His rise out of Romantic Comedy Hell is now complete with such recent films as Mud, Killer Joe, Dallas Buyers Club, Wolf of Wall Street (yes only a cameo but still) and coming soon he will be in Christopher Nolan’s next film, Interstellar.
McConaughey’s new resolution to pick roles with significant substance has led him wherever those gems may be which, right now, is TV. In HBO’s True Detective, McConaughey plays Louisiana State Police Detective Rust Cohle, and, 3 episodes in, his performance has been nothing short of captivating. Cohle is off balanced but in an unconventional way. He doesn’t consistently fly off the handle or go pointing his gun in people’s faces like most cops do in other police dramas. Kevin Bacon in The Following comes to mind. Cohle is much more multi faceted – meditating on the meaning of life while coming unglued piece by piece. It’s far more realistic of a portrayal. Sure, officers of the law must resort to on-the-job violence, but it seems more believable that the burden of the job, what one encounters and sees on a daily basis, slowly erodes who they once were, as in True Detective. McConaughey’s acting is raw, powerful and once again, impossible not to watch. Like a modern day shaman we become transfixed by him. When he speaks with his long pauses, or flicks his cigarette butts into a coffee mug, he is in complete control of our attention.
In contrast, Cohle’s partner, Detective Martin Hart played by Woody Harrelson, fulfills that more common police officer stereotype, as touched on above. He drinks too much, cheats on his wife, and flies off the handle at the littlest scratch to his over inflated ego. It’s a terrific contrast to Cohle. When Hart doesn’t get what he wants, he uses the power of intimidation to gain control. Cohle on the other hand, seeks to find the intellectual truth behind things, but that leads to the peeling away of his mind. Each layer pulls back and reveals something deeper, something more dangerous.
It is the writing in True Detective that allows McConaughey’s acting to thrive. The pace is slow enough to let the audience watch him be pulled apart brick by brick. The viewer is treated with sophistication and intelligence; nothing is dumbed down. The characters are not written black and white. Series creator Nic Pizzolatto knows that it’s the shades of grey that are most intriguing, most alluring. As an example, Cohle is as multi-faceted as they come. While he’s still a tough cop (we do see Cohle rough up a few country bumpkins for information), that’s relatively the extent of his overt violence. He’s calm, his mind ever-working to solve the puzzle. But he’s no machine. He’s haunted by the past; ghosts from his past life. He drowns himself in his work, something that he can’t seemingly escape from. When True Detective presents Cohle in present day, he’s long haired, mustached and disheveled. This creates terrific intrigue in the methodical crime drama; we will get to see what it was that ripped the last mortar from Cohle’s mind.
McConaughy and Hollywood are a terrific metaphor for life. He has risen out of a decade perpetuated by bad roles (and perhaps bad decisions) and begun thriving once again. He is what we had expected of him to be – a terrific actor. If he can get out of Romantic Comedy Hell, there’s hope for the rest of us, wherever we are in our lives.