When was the last time a male actor, already in his forties, and around a while, simply grabbed the kingdom? Naturally, there are guys who become stars with one picture, or one scene: Tom Cruise did it with Risky Business; Tom Hanks made it with Splash and Big; DiCaprio was transformed by Titanic; and Johnny Depp had Edward Scissorhands, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Ed Wood in the space of a few years. But those actors were emerging in their twenties. McConaughey had been around since the early ’90s and in that time he’d suffered over-exposure in the minds of many people. He was a Texas pretty boy, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Dazed and Confused, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:The Next Generation. He had been appealing and valiant in Lone Star, A Time to Kill, The Newton Boys, Contact, Sahara and We Are Marshall, but all he was doing was growing older and waiting to be passed over by the next young generation.
Then something happened, but no one seems to know if it was organized or whether it was just that The Lincoln Lawyer took the attorney from A Time to Kill and made him sleazy, and funny. That was 2011 and Matthew McConaughey was forty-two already. Last week he was forty-four and suddenly the Internet knew his birthday (November 4) and was running stories that he might get double-nominated for Oscars this year with Dallas Buyers Club and The Wolf of Wall Street. But before those awards, he and his good friend Woody Harrelson will be on HBO in a new series, True Detective. This was the week Dallas Buyers Club opened, and settled any doubts. The film averaged $29,000 at nine theaters. Maybe the subject was a downer and disturbing—it was a guy with AIDS and skin lesions. Still, the distributor had misjudged. McConaughey was thin as a stick but he was coming on like Robert Mitchum on AZT. He was a rascal, such as we had not known on screen in maybe fifty years, and people were greedy for him. Brad Pitt was such a novelty briefly in Thelma and Louise and George Clooney flirts with being naughty, but McConaughey is dangerous.
It’s not that he has had a hit yet, in the same league as Risky Business, Big or the Oceans films. But in just a few years he has lost thirty pounds and grown up so fast he could be nasty if he weren’t funny. He has the confidence of a poker player. Four unexpected films had done it: Killer Joe, for William Friedkin, playing a hired killer and a police detective who treated Gina Gershon with NC-17 sexual disdain; as the reporter in Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, where he was actually upstaged in terms of outrage by a rowdy and randy Nicole Kidman; as the title character in Jeff Nichols’ Mud, a wanderer close to vagrancy and brilliant in his scenes with two young boys; and Dallas, a roofer by day and a stripper by night, in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike.
The shape of his face had changed, but the cast of his mind was transformed. He was no longer trustworthy. He was a rampant loner looking out for himself and his mouth now seemed to be twisted or reset by wisecracks and drawled one-liners. On its own, not one of these four films would have drawn much attention, and none of them made serious money, but for McConaughey they were four strikes in a row—fastball, curve, change up, and spitter. And all it takes is three strikes. We’ll see how far Dallas Buyers Club goes, but McConaughey has established a niche for himself as being very smart and sly, but carrying the mainstream with him. No one would ever doubt he’s from Texas. In the old days, Mitchum was born in Connecticut but he had lived years on the road, not much short of a hobo, and picking up more worldly knowledge than other actors of his time understood. That’s the trick with McConaughey. It’s the sudden onset of experience. Put an image of him now next to Contact or A Time to Kill and it’s hard to credit what has happened. Or why he was working with so many brakes on for years.
We all of us have to be careful, him included. If it becomes plain that he’s a star and someone the public longs to see, then the business is likely to cast him as stalwart heroes, wise men and reliable fellows. So everything could crack apart as quickly as it came together. He has made his breakthrough by being a touch or two off-center in these films, by playing one in a group—and a rural group at that. In Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, he wears a suit and a tie in a film that is trying to present DiCaprio as the lord of misrule. Yet McConaughey is the funniest thing in the trailer–if Scorsese manages to give us more comedy than is his custom.
Perhaps True Detective will be decisive, if only because more stars are made on cable these days than spring up in movie theaters. It’s a search-for-a-killer story stretched out over years and set in Louisiana, created by Nic Pizzolatto (writer on some of The Killing) and directed by Cary Fukunaga (who made Jane Eyre). The promise is in the pairing of McConaughey and Harrelson because they are both rascals likely to tease each other while perpetrating a good deal of casual sex and violence. But together they may be free to remain supporting actors, like drunks tottering away from a night on the town. About all we know is that McConaughey has a new look for the series, not just thin but gaunt, unsmiling and maybe depressed. I’m guessing that that straight face will drop some caustic jokes on us. After this, he is playing the lead in the next Christopher Nolan film, Interstellar. You can tell where that’s set and it may be that the new McConaughey is more at ease in Arkansas or Louisiana. But once you’re a star your life no longer belongs to you alone.
David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic and author, most recently, of Moments That Made the Movies (Thames and Hudson).