What can you say about Matthew McConaughey? The man has given us some of the most generic films of the 2000s and some of the best performances of the 2010s. He’s characterized as carefree and cool, yet lauded for his method acting and intense commitment to his roles. Upon accepting the Best Actor Oscar for playing an AIDS patient, he signed off with “alright, alright, alright,” a catchphrase from a teen comedy made 20 years earlier.
Calling him an enigma would be like calling his “Dazed and Confused” character a stoner. Some things just go without saying. But it’s this very quality that makes McConaughey such an exciting performer. You never really know where he’s going or what he’s going to do next, just that it’ll be different. His latest release, the real-life drama “White Boy Rick,” is now in theaters, and to celebrate, we’ve decided to look back at his ten best performances. Break out the bongos if you got ‘em.
10. “The Lincoln Lawyer” (2011)
After a decade of diminishing rom-coms and big-budget misfires, McConaughey went back to basics with 2011’s “The Lincoln Lawyer.” The film, based on the novel of the same name, doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a genre exercise, and as such, it allows McConaughey to wield his charisma without having to worry about auteur direction or a dense script. It was, at the risk of making a Lincoln pun, the perfect comeback vehicle.
McConaughey plays Mickey Haller, a defense attorney who, upon being handed a seemingly easy case, gets entangled in a web of corruption and murder. This web includes confrontations with the likes of Ryan Phillippe, Michael Peña, and Bryan Cranston, each of whom McConaughey outsmarts with slippery ease. If ever he were to make a sequel to one of his films, “The Lincoln Lawyer” would be prime fodder.
9. “The Wolf Of Wall Street” (2013)
For a film that’s defined by its excess, it’s ironic that the most memorable performance in “The Wolf Of Wall Street” is also its most compact. McConaughey has less than ten minutes to play the broker who shows Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort the ropes, and yet, his coked-out, chest-thumping turn nearly steals the show. “The name of the game is to move the money from the client’s pocket into your pocket,” he purrs, with a Cheshire grin and a free-flowing energy that most jazz musicians would envy.
Every line he rattles off is eminently quotable, from the “fugazi” bit to the “rookie numbers” that need to be bumped up. Released in the wake of “Dallas Buyers Club,” McConaughey’s turn here feels like a heat check, a reminder that he can make a bigger impression with one scene than most actors can with an entire runtime.
8. “Killer Joe” (2011)
“Killer Joe” bears the most vile and disturbing performance of McConaughey’s career. By that same measure, it is one of his most admirable. As a crooked policeman who agrees to commit a murder for a clueless family, he exerts a power over the rest of the film that renders the characters (and the audience) helpless. There’s no escaping his serpent-like pitch when, instead of money, he asks for the family’s youngest daughter. There’s also no escaping when the family tries to outsmart him, and he comes back to their home looking for blood.
There are some tough scenes to watch here, and director William Friedkin gives his star full reign to indulge them. Every movement he makes is deliberate, every bit of dialogue he recites is chilling in its directness. McConaughey fights the urge to humanize his character even one bit, and the result is a masterfully ugly performance that doesn’t let up. You’ll never look at fried chicken the same.
7. “Dazed & Confused” (1993)
Everything we know and love about McConaughey comes from “Dazed and Confused.” As Wooderson, the twenty-something who still chases after teenage chicks on the weekend, he took a part that was questionable on paper and turned him into the film’s mascot. Wooderson shouldn’t really be cool, and yet, he’s the coolest, most enlightened cat on the block. He knows that adulthood is a drag, so he spends every moment reliving his glory days and telling others to enjoy it while they can. He’s like Peter Pan for the potheads and burnouts.
No such guy exists in real life, but such is the power of McConaughey’s performance. He’s so confident and charmingly goofy that he makes it all seem very plausible. It’s telling that everything he introduces here, from the laid-back demeanor to the “alright, alright, alright” catchphrase are still defining parts of his persona 25 years later. Few actors get a film debut that strong… But it’d be a lot cooler if they did.
6. “White Boy Rick” (2018)
“White Boy Rick” is based on the true events of Rick Wersche Jr.’s life, a young kid who was ensnared by the FBI and Detroit police into being an informant for the Detroit drug scene. Matthew McConaughey plays Ricks dad, Richard Wershe Sr. who is a small-time gun seller who isn’t afraid to throw in some illegal accessories if he can make a quick buck from doing so.
McConaughey returns to familiar territory of the poor man trying to keep it all together but, in this film, he turns what is clearly a supporting role into the most interesting characters of “White Boy Rick”. He is by no means a good father, despite trying to do his best and as Richard Sr McConaughey brings a depth and emotional range that director Yann Demange knows how to showcase with long close ups of his face. It may not be his best, but this McConaughey performance deserves to be seen as it adds an interesting layer to his career.
5. “Magic Mike” (2012)
McConaughey often jokes that Dallas, the male stripper he plays in “Magic Mike,” is what Wooderson would have become had he gotten tired of rolling joints and running from the cops. The similarities are definitely there. Both characters hail from Texas, both have an appetite for young women, and both are outrageously smooth. The big difference, of course, is that Dallas is a schemer, and with twenty years more mileage, is willing to make morally compromising decisions.
McConaughey’s performance carries with it an underlying current of desperation, of fear that he wasted his life away and will soon be usurped by his male proteges. It’s the first time the actor grapples with his age on film, and the emotional chord he strikes is a resonant one. That’s not to say Dallas isn’t lots of fun as well. In typical McConaughey fashion, he flips a ridiculous line (“I think I see a lotta lawbreakers up in this house tonight,”) into another quotable.
4. “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013)
“Dallas Buyers Club” will always be one of McConaughey’s most notable films because it netted him the Oscar and because of the physical changes he underwent beforehand. He lost a whopping 47 pounds to play real-life AIDS patient Ron Woodroof, and his fragile appearance remains as striking as the day the film was released. A change this drastic could have easily overshadowed the acting, but McConaughey makes sure that Woodroof, with all his vices and virtues, comes off as more than a casualty.
McConaughey expertly straddles the line between selfishness and heroism, one that too often gets smoothed over for Hollywood adaptations. He makes sure that we understand the importance of what Woodroof is doing, just as we understand that he’s doing it for his own good. Even if you knock “Dallas Buyers Club” for being Oscar bait, it’s hard to deny the emotional power that McConaughey brings to the table.
3. “Mud” (2011)
In 1996, Vanity Fair ran a profile on McConaughey that compared him to his idol Paul Newman. The comparison was lofty, especially given that the actor was only 27 at the time, but he eventually backed up their claims with the searing melodrama “Mud.” As the titular fugitive, McConaughey reanimates the romantic loners that Newman played in films like “Hud” and “Cool Hand Luke,” while adding his own unique pathos to the mix.
More than any other film of the list, “Mud” relies on the magnetic qualities of its leading man. Director Jeff Nichols says that he wrote the character of Mud specifically for McConaughey, and indeed there’s something compelling about seeing his cocky facade crack under the weight of guilt and lifelong failure. Like Hud or Luke, he’s a decent man trying his best to appear reckless, a kind soul lost to cruel circumstance. Newman would have been proud.
2. “Interstellar” (2014)
After a string of wily eccentrics, McConaughey proved that he could play an everyman to stunning effect with “Interstellar.” He’s tasked with being an audience surrogate for one of the only times in his career, and it’s a credit to his natural appeal that he keeps from being swallowed up by the tech and dazzling scenery around him. He handles the sci-fi stuff with the intensity of a genre veteran and embodies the wholesome values of yesteryear without coming off hokey or stiff.
However, none of these things are what place “Interstellar” at number two on the list. What places it is the tender, heartbreaking relationship between McConaughey and his onscreen daughter. Their bond is the emotional core of the film, and the scene where he watches her age 20 years over a series of video messages contains some of his finest acting ever. He nails every nuance, every flicker of regret at not having been there to raise her. If you don’t shed a tear, you may want to double-check your pulse.
1. “True Detective” (2014)
Ok, we may be cheating here but “True Detective” season one is the capstone of the McConaissance, the culmination of everything that McConaughey had worked towards up to that point in his career. He combines the smooth operator from “The Lincoln Lawyer,” the steely lawman from “Killer Joe,” and the poetic loner from “Mud” to create his most memorable, iconic (and meme-inspired) character, Rust Cohle, a tortured soul of a detective whose penchant for danger is rivaled only by his disdain for humanity.
Of course, there’s more to Cohle than initially meets the eye, and with eight episodes to unpack his deep-seated flaws, McConaughey is a kid in a candy store. He’s never been this cynical, this obsessive, this witty. The flashback structure of “True Detective” also allows him to show his range. In one scene, he’s strikingly handsome and direct. In the next, he’s old, disheveled, and purposely vague about his motives. It’s a show-stopping performance that gets better with each viewing.
What is your favorite Matthew McConaughey performance? Have you seen “White Boy Rick?” Let us know in the comments section below and be sure to stay tuned to our review of “White Boy Rick” on the podcast this weekend.
You can follow Danilo and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @DaniloSCastro