6. Newton Boys (1998) Dir. Richard Linklater
As the second Richard Linklater film on this list, Linklater directs McConaughey in this film based on the true events of the Newton Gang, an infamous bank robbing gang who targeted banks and eventually a train throughout the 1920’s. Starring alongside a cast made up of Ethan Hawke and Julianna Marguiles,
McConaughey plays Willis Newton, head of the gang and recently freed from a stint of prison. His incarceration however did not dampen his plans for future robberies, and he aims to rob enough banks to fuel his expensive lifestyle and ultimately to buy a successful oil drill so he can retire from his robbing days and settle into the very profitable oil business.
Linklater makes use of costumes, vintage weapons, and old looking intertitles to create the look and feel of early cinema and the cast’s performances create an enjoyable biopic.
McConaughey really impresses however in one of the later scenes. Having played Willis as a happy-go-lucky to the point of dangerous thief, he consequently confesses to Marguiles in a tearful scene that all he really wants now is to spend his time with her. His raw emotion in this scene makes this confession one of the strongest points in the film and showcases McConaughey’s talents.
5. Dazed and Confused (1993) Dir. Richard Linklater
This is the final Richard Linklater film on this list and McConaughey’s breakout film. Focusing on a group of Texan teenagers and their last day of middle and high school in 1976, the cult film features casual drug use and the hazing of middle school teenagers into high school life. Swapping between different teenagers as their days unfolds, a middle schooler is favourited by some high school friends and he is invited to play pool, before the film eventually culminates in a huge illegal party in the woods.
This middle schooler develops a crush on a girl, and meets more of his fellow middle schoolers at the party. Meanwhile a high schooler struggles to sign a form promising he will no longer take any drugs if he wishes to continue playing high school football, and a trio of smart teenagers theorise about their future and their potential to fit in.
McConaughey plays a 20 something stoner with a penchant for high school girls, preferably red-heads. He hangs out at the local pool club and arranges the party in the words. He is troublingly charismatic and likeable despite his dubious attitudes and demeanour. He ad-libbed the line ‘alright, alright, alright’ which has gone on to not only be an oft-quoted line of this film, but a line McConaughey himself has repeated when playing other characters.
4. Killer Joe (2011) Dir. William Friedkin
This film is perhaps most well-known for ‘the chicken scene’. What you’ve heard is probably true as the film’s climactic finale is lewd, shocking, and genuinely unnerving. Tracy Letts wrote the screenplay for this film and adapted it from his play of the same name.
McConaughey plays a twisted cop and assassin for hire. He enjoys what appears to be a successful business of killing for money and then investigating the case himself to insure he gets away with the crime. His supreme knowledge of the law and details of murder also means he can successfully hide a murder behind the façade of an accident and again, cleanly get away with killing.
His service is expensive, and when 22 year old Chris is unable to pay his loan sharks a hefty sum, he hires McConaughey to kill his money to collect her life insurance money, thereby paying off his loan sharks and paying McConaughey for the murder. As Chris is unable to pay McConaughey up front, he gives his sister to the assassin as a retainer. The rest of the film centres on adultery, murder, and McConaughey’s twisted relationship with Chris’s sister.
There are two scenes of note which showcase McConaughey’s progressing acting ability. First the sex scene between him and Chris’s sister is deplorable, highly charged, and displays McConaughey’s handle of displaying subtle nuances. The second is the final ‘chicken scene’, possibly one of McConaughey’s most stunning performances to date.
3. Interstellar (2014) Dir. Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic saw McConaughey as the space-bound Cooper whom after lamenting about humankind’s inability to leave planet Earth, is hurtled through space via a wormhole near Saturn in the quest for habitable planets. McConaughey leaves behind a devoted daughter Murph and a farmer son as he navigates the vacuum of space and a number of hostile planets.
Sent on this mission by NASA, Cooper is tasked with finding a new home for humankind given planet Earth is dying resulting in swathes of dust storms destroying crops, properties, and humankind’s health. McConaughey is cast in the role of a loving father who straddles his feelings of longing to save humankind by exploring space and his grief at leaving behind his family and notably his daughter, Murph.
An added element of pain originates from the difference in how time passes on Earth versus how time passes on the different planets. McConaughey’s character faces the possibility of returning home to find he may be the same age as his now grown infant daughter he left behind or perhaps that he returns home to find she has died many years ago of old age.
McConaughey shines in one particular scene. His family are only able to communicate with him via a one way system of videos, McConaughey returns to his ship to catch up on years of these videos and he witnesses his children’s accelerated growth through these videos, his grief at missing out on their childhood is raw, touching, and intense. Although this film is in some aspects similar to his previous Contact, McConaughey truly shines in this space-bound role.
2. Dallas Buyers Club (2013) Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée
When the first images of Dallas Buyers Club were made available to the public, the resounding response was shock regarding McConaughey’s weight loss and sickly appearance. He appeared dangerously thin, his bones jutted out, and his face looked wholly different and starved compared to how he looked in his last large film Bernie (2011).
For Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey reportedly lost around 38 pounds to play Ron Woodroof, a man diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980’s when little was known regarding treatment.
The film is based on the real Ron Woodruff who after being diagnosed began smuggling illegal AIDS medication into the United States and formed the Dallas Buyers Club, a club in which by paying to join the group you would be paying to buy the smuggled medication for self-treatment. This biographical film was a huge success and McConaughey won the Academy Award for Best Actor. The film also won the Academy Award for Best Makeup despite reportedly only spending a budget of $250 on makeup.
McConaughey dazzles as the initially homophobic, at times cruel, but mostly desperate Woodruff. His breakdown into accepting his diagnosis before refusing to accept the legal medication is captivating. McConaughey’s skill at portraying clinical coldness rivals his ability to show a man teetering on the edge of death. From beginning to end, McConaughey proves in every scene that he deserves his Academy Award.
1. True Detective (2014) Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga
Although not technically a film, the first season of True Detective aired throughout 2014 in eight hour-long episodes that dazzled critics and audiences alike with its Southern Gothic mysterious wonder.
Written by Nic Pizzolatto McConaughey starred alongside Woody Harrelson, both played detectives in South Louisiana, trying to find the murderer of a young woman found drawn upon, wearing antlers, and bound to a tree. McConaughey and Harrelson begin to uncover the sordid mystery through a number of legal and illegal channels. Harrelson plays the more straight-laced, law abiding, and mostly family bound man despite a number of extra-marital affairs he embarks upon.
Whereas McConaughey plays the deeply troubled Rust Cohle; a man prone to hallucinations because of his past drug abuse, dark musings on time and humankind, and a ruthless inability to leave a case open. This case plagues the chain-smoking, drinking at noon, McConaughey who goes above and beyond to try and find the girl’s killer.
In one particularly long shot in which McConaughey infiltrates a gang for information, McConaughey showcases his physical talents for maintaining character whilst navigating an emotional and physical minefield. His physicality in this scene appears alongside his frequent slow and still musings on life and death.
In the final scene between McConaughey and Harrelson, McConaughey divulges the true intensity of the pain of losing his daughter in a gripping unspeakable finale. This is McConaughey’s finest role to date.
Author Bio: Cassice Last is currently studying for a Masters degree in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews. She spends most of her time watching or writing about films and the rest hiking and cycling.