He is one of those actors I haven’t seen much of, and when he took home the Oscar for the best Actor in this year’s Academy Awards, I was reminded of the first movie I had seen him in. That was U-571 in 2000, and I remember being way too absorbed in the dank suspense of the battered submarine to be bothered about who the actors were. Matthew McConaughey was right at the front, and I recall his face with tensed muscles looking up at the dripping ceiling, and right now, I realise I should have paid more attention to him than I did before.
Matthew McConaughey seems to have a limited body of work despite his evident attributes. His first appearance on the big screen was in Dazed and Confused (1993), where he played the laid-back 20-something David Wooderson, still up to tricks with the younger boys, and for which he was singled out for his commendable performance. This was followed by some small, not-so-great roles in Angels in the Outfield, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Boys on the Side and Glory Daze. The next major break came in the superb Lone Star.
McConaughey played the smooth Sheriff Buddy Deeds who put up a good show in public about his ideals, though the diggings (also literally) by his son (played by Chris Cooper) years later show another side to his character. The movie was more about a line of relationships and human frailties and some pretty deep secrets, and it was pretty much shouldered by Chris Cooper alone, with all other characters, including McConuaghey appearing in bit and pieces. The relatively small but crucial screen time that McConaughey clocked in the movie was sufficient to put him in the league of the better class of actors.
And then came A Time to Kill – a typical John Grisham adaptation. The good guys in Grisham novel are always my ideal people – they are normal when they begin and gradually begin to see the holes in their daily structures and try to come to terms with them. McConaughey fit the picture brilliantly and of all the John Grisham’s screen adaptations, his performance as the aloof lawyer narrowly misses the brilliance of Matt Damon in The Rainmaker. Of course, the prize of his portrayal is the closing argument, and it still amazes me how his body language conveyed more of his disgust than the inflections in his voice.
This was followed by a period of relative calm when McConaughey featured in an out of little heard of movies, until Edtv happened. The movie earned mixed reviews and wasn’t what you would call a box office hit, but it certainly did good to McConaughey as he played the goofy everyman having to share his seemingly ordinary life on TV. In short, he was adorable. And that is saying something after the relatively intense roles he had played prior to this.
His very next exploit was U-571 which was generally speaking, a wartime movie with lots of espionage and counter-espionage and all that, and yes, amid the darkness and pressing suspense, as I said before, the one thing that is impressed in my mind is the character of the tough and competent Lieutenant Tyler manoeuvring through hostile waters stealthily, quite contrary to the dope habitually making a fool of himself in Edtv.
There were some lighter movies like The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch besides a very little known but critically acclaimed Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. In 2006 came We Are Marshall – a very poignant sports drama, which McConaughey pretty much shouldered all by himself. Following a short stint in Tropic Thunder (which in my opinion he could have totally passed without a dent in his career), McConaughey starred in The Lincoln Lawyer. It was from here that he started taking up more serious and gritty roles, shedding his growing image as someone fit for the lighter romcom flicks, and began displaying the depth of his acting talent. The Lincoln Lawyer was again a taut crime thriller, and his character of the trapped defence attorney was of a different suave shade than the lawyer of A Time to Kill. His performance was engaging enough and did justice to the potboiler nature of the movie.
Then followed two black comedies – Bernie and Killer Joe – both of which received good response from a like-minded crowd and were not necessarily mainstream blockbusters. In both, McConaughey was a component of the well-oiled machinery and his acting skills attracted as much attention as those of his co-stars. These movies signalled the beginning of a general trend of his movies, which are all slightly bizarre and pleasantly eccentric. And of course, the famous drawl and the expansive, professorial hand gestures had begun creeping far too often. Not that we mind, in fact we love it.
In 2012, Mud was screened to much appreciation. McConaughey was nothing short of brilliant, as far removed from the more self-assured roles he had played before. Behind the rugged, unkempt exterior, there lurked a vulnerable, childlike doggedness and equal measure of softness, and though it takes some time getting used to the accent, it isn’t long before you are drawn into his character, not exactly sure if you pity him or should smack him on the head and ask him to grow up. The following year appears to be a certain peak in his career. A painfully brief appearance in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street was so McConaughey-ish; it’s quite impossible to think of anyone else to pull of this level of eccentricity with such suavity.
Then of course, Dallas Buyers Club came about. And the rest, as we say, is history. The stubborn and outrageous character of Ron Woodroof was played to perfection. The outlandish behaviours seem to do McConaughey’s skills justice, because he never seems to overdo them, and always keeps them at a level where it is slightly uncomfortable, though not completely intolerable. And the occasional spalls of tight-lipped fear and hopelessness add to the general awe of the character. Again in Dallas Buyers Club, Jared Leto provided a superb support in a most unconventional role and the pair of them literally stole the show.
Matthew McConaughey, being the brilliant actor that he is, is quite the chameleon. But he certainly has an upper hand when it comes to being out-of the-box. In fact, you need go no further back in the archives to see the kind of an actor McConaughey is, if only you listen to his acceptance speech at this year’s Academy Awards. His was the kind of speech you don’t hear very often, and though initially you do wonder if he is being deliberately incoherent, someway, somehow, he draws you into his wavelength, with sincere eyes and eager gestures, as if trying to wave his thought process into you. In short he is a true charmer; he is a performer par excellence, and if he says his hero is ten years away, I can only imagine what more is in store.
Oh yes, I nearly forgot… Interstellar!