Charting The McConaissance: The 10 Best Performances of Matthew McConaughey

5. Mud (2012)


The festival breakout among the consistent (if short) filmography of Jeff Nicholls is the glorious Mud. McConaughey plays the lead role again, as Mud, and plays a character that is somewhat of a mud dweller himself. As a fugitive on the run he is discovered by our two young heroes, Ellis and Neckbone, who discover a boat in a tree amongst the maze of Mississippi swamps they inhabit. Unable to resist the allure of such a bizarre sight they search around and soon become aware of Mud’s tenancy of their plaything.

This is not to underplay the maturity of these characters. Very much fitting into the coming of age genre rather than being a fugitive caper, the film allows the boys discover much about what it means to be a man across this slightly fantastic drama. Tye Sheridan and Sam Shepard are definitely two to watch with Sheridan starring in Joe (2014) this year alongside Nicolas Cage, another man with a patchy bunch of films to his name.

Support comes in fine form from Michael Shannon (a regular with Nicholls) and Reese Witherspoon going even more “country” than she did in Sweet Home Alabama, and playing the love interest. One of the key ideas in the film is the lesson the young protagonists learn about love from their role model the ever-earnest Mud. Despite the questions about the morality behind Mud and his extreme, passionate actions, the film as a whole has a sweetness and innocence to it, for which credit can be given to both the director and the actors.

Where we have before seen a more sleaze-ridden charm from McConaughey, here we get an earnest sincerity, which brings a new likeability. Mud is more humble and unsure of himself than in any of the performances on this list. That said the shirt does come off, but we can forgive him for this one.


4. Magic Mike (2012)

Magic Mike

Steven Soderbergh is a tough one to pin down in terms of the tone across his body of work. From Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), to the Ocean’s Franchise, he has great range from the dark and twisted to the lighter, funnier and more star-studded. Magic Mike fits right in with this as a drama packaged within the same wrapping as Burlesque (2010), but oh so misleadingly. Where the latter was silly and poorly performed Mike surprises us and makes us laugh in ways that are surprisingly serious. Also surprising is the extent to which the humour appeals to men given the marketing campaign. I for one was put off from seeing it in the cinema by the posters and was unfortunate to catch up so late.

As Mike, we have the hip-hopping and increasingly relatable Channing Tatum. He takes young Alex Pettyfer under his wing into the world of male stripping. At the head of this world is Dallas, joyously portrayed by Matthew McCon. In this character we have every bit of sassiness, charisma, and depth that we have seen before, but taken to new glorious highs.

No stranger to being topless of course, McConaughey excels in the part making us laugh the most he has since Wooderson, and engage emotionally the most we ever have with a male stripper. The beauty with which the film is shot, and the belief in it’s worth shown by all involved make it a memorable surprise, and a film that has something a little bit different about it.


3. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)


By this stage our man’s career is as good as saved already, but if anything can help a guy’s career it is a film in the hands of Martin Scorsese. The Wolf of Wall Street was a pretty controversial film due to its relation to its subject Jordan Belfort. Played with no holds barred by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jordan rises from an out of city brokers to the pinnacle of Wall Street’s power in a frenzy of creativity, cocaine and confidence.

Notable in this film also is Jonah Hill, who plays one of Jordan’s early partners in crime (literally), and brings comic relief to the film throughout, little though it needs it. The film has laugh out loud moments throughout, even if it’s sometimes just at the absurdity of the excesses displayed. But for some reason there is one scene (aside from the one with the Quaaludes) that has stuck in the minds of all.

We have all I think heard the story now, of Leo’s ingenious incorporation of Matthew’s off-screen preparation into one of his most memorable scenes on screen. Ironically you can’t help feeling Leo’s own addition to Matt’s performance may well have had an influence on the academy. McConaughey’s portrayal of Mark Hanna takes the character’s obliviousness to the very existence of consequences and other people in general, and makes us laugh about it.

More than that McCon gives us a helpful way to remember what his attitude sounds like, in a song. Clearly recognizing the way that this rhythm “Mmmhhmmmhmmm” stays with us in throughout the film the producers shrewdly popped it in the end credits, adding drums and everything. It is this same rhythm that beats throughout Matt’s career; you just have to look for it sometimes.


2. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)


We are all really just recovering from the post-Oscar discussion, and this list is a bit late in a way. But let’s quickly state the facts. Matthew McConaughey, giving his renaissance a tangible golden form, beat some outstanding rival performances (including Leo) to win the Best Actor Oscar this year. For those of us who had become fans by this stage, and most people who saw at least this film, this was a proud and remarkable moment.

While actors and their “form” often oscillate between degrees of quality, this is perhaps one of the most notable rises in terms of speed, quality and quantity. It seemed somewhat fitting that he won. While some will say that it would have been equally so for Chiwetel Ejiofor to win for his role in 12 Years a Slave, there is more of a story behind Matt’s win. Indeed both 12 Years and Dallas Buyers have interesting production stories which are worth looking up.

One person, who certainly saw many of the above-mentioned attributes of Matthew, was the sister of Ron Woodruff himself. The project went through the not insubstantial paws of Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling, of whom Woodruff’s sister was unsure. Whether or not one feels that the weight loss is a bit of an Oscar gimmick, it is undeniably impressive, and the performance is terrific in its own right. Woodruff has a swagger that we have seen previously, but a new vulnerability for Matt, to which the physical transformation does add.

Perhaps the most negative moment in Matt’s career of the last four years or so came immediately after his most positive, his acceptance speech. Not that it was negative in it’s content more that it was baffling, arrogant, and overkilled in it’s religious climax. Yet he has seemed always a fairly humbled character. But this is only important in terms of public opinion and not actually in terms of career. Indeed it really shouldn’t take away anything from his credibility as an actor. One thing that has done a good job of remedying this is True Detective.


1. True Detective (2013)


The quality of the television around (as is well documented already) has taken on a similar trajectory to McConaughey’s career. We are currently blessed with what can be conceived as the most exciting medium through which screen art can be made. Most importantly Television has taken on something of a filmic quality, increasing the scope within which it can work. This means higher production values, and bigger names. Kevin Spacey really sets a precedent with his turn in House of Cards, of which the first season is matched only by its second.

These new advantages, made possible with the help of Netflix, HBO etc. create a framework within which writers and directors can be far more daring and ambitious. Due to the episodic nature of television, we get far more time to get to know and (just about) love these characters. Through no other medium can you spend quite so much time with these stars, and truly see the complexities of their personalities.

In McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s detectives we get two ends of the same stick. Both have strong and established principles by which they live their lives, both based around a similar notion of what is right. But they couldn’t have more different interpretations of it and this one of the sources of the occasional comedy to be found in True Detective.

The development of the pair’s relationship across the series is truly rewarding and their characters are two of the best acted and most interesting to have graced the silver screen since Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Rust Cohle is one of the most relentlessly rational Detectives we have seen in the genre. To say True Detective is a twist on the genre would be an understatement. This character trait, whilst saying what the rational cynic inside of us wants to, allows riddance from exhausted cop tropes where passion overcomes rationality.

Without Matthew McConaughey it is hard to imagine the character working nearly as well. The same can be said of Harrelson’s Marty Hart, and really every piece of good casting in television. The Don Drapers, Dexters, and Nancy Botwins of the TV world are irreplaceable to their fans and followers. The time that television allows you to form a relationship with its characters represents the catalyst for this great loyalty. In combination with the collaborative vision of actor and director this creates characters the likes of which we haven’t seen much before.

If we try and look back of McConaughey’s career and see which characters Rust Cohle is a composite of it is hard to pin down. There is certainly a bit of Mud in there, the actor nailing the look that says “this guy has seen some shit”. The present day version of the character in the show has a Woodruff feel to him, in his bedraggled nature, although he does not of course have HIV in True Detective. The leadership shown in The Newton Boys is also visible.



It is worth saying that this is of course only my opinion man. There are films that aren’t mentioned that are considered better than some that are but these are the ones I like best. Hopefully this list also makes you wonder why the renaissance took so long. All it takes is the right film, and the right people to see it. It is hard to decide which film was “the moment”. If Bradley Cooper had Silver Linings what did McConaughey have? Or is Matthew McConaughey’s entire oeuvre in fact a master class in acting which has no turning point. The shape of the McConaughey graph is hard to define but we know at least that it goes up exponentially.

A film many will be screaming is The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) and fair enough. This is perhaps the most obvious pivot of McCon’s career. But it is the same kind of work he goes on to do better versions of. In this list I aim to give you the full range of the best of Matthew McConaughey. Also worth mentioning is twisted and nostalgic The Paperboy (2012), directed by Lee Daniels. Matthew plays a lawyer here again, and deals with some people who wouldn’t be out of place as villains in True Detective. Oh and Surfer Dude (2008), which is beaten only by Point Break (1991) in the category of existential surfer movies.

Author Bio: Matthew Wright, member of Team Zissou, creator of Right On Films and film fan. Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson are amongst his favourite directors. Studying Philosophy in his last year at Newcastle and looking to start film application, and blog shortly.