Dallas Buyers Club is the latest of a series of great movies that have ostensibly changed the public-perception of Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey, who plays Ron Woodroof, a man seeking alternative treatments after a recent HIV diagnosis, has once again been given the chance to tackle a role significantly darker and more nuanced than the ones we've come to expect of him during the past decade. Light-hearted romantic fare like Failure to Launch, this is not. This recent career-defying turnaround has and should continue to create a renewed interest in the man and his work.
This past year was undoubtedly a turning point for McConaughey. The 43-year-old actor put out five films this past year, all showcasing acting chops we might not have expected from the guy. He has especially shown a knack for choosing interesting and challenging roles in character-based dramas. McConaughey's big international success from the last year was Magic Mike, where he played Dallas, a self-declared poet-capitalist who always looks out for number one. William Freidkin's Killer Joe and Jeff Nichol's Mud have McConaughey playing the titular roles of two vastly different characters. Joe is a psychotic contract killer who is willing to murder the mother of a family of rednecks in exchange for the sexual favors of their young daughter. Contrast this with his character, Mud: while still dirty in a lot of respects, Mud is the vagabond with a soft side who befriends a pair of young boys to help him run-off with the woman he loves. Despite the fact that both roles indulge his proclivity for shirtlessness, these were great showcases of his significant talent.
His decision to reunite with Richard Linklater (the two first partnered in the classic Dazed and Confused) in the subdued Bernie was also inspired. Taking on a small role as district attorney Danny Buck Davidson — the man prosecuting Jack Black's character for a fugue-induced murder — meant that McConaughey was willing to put down the leading man mantle in order to grab a more quality, albeit smaller, character role. Similarly, in The Paperboy he becomes an integrated part of a star-studded ensemble piece about palpable lust, violence, and sweat in Florida.
A new penchant for working with masterful directors including Lee Daniels, Richard Linklater, Jeff Nichols, Steven Soderbergh, and William Freidkin has marked this recent turn in his career. These are guys known for off-beat and challenging movies that are typically well-received on the critics circle. Choosing the right kind of people to work with can be just as important as picking the right role to play. Saying yes to these directors means McConaughey puts trust in the outgoing body of work from these unique voices which are independent in nature. This usually means the films aren't guaranteed cash-cows. Taking on the smaller and riskier roles involved in these projects demonstrated McConaughey was willing to tackle the lower-budgeted passion projects of these great directors in exchange for a smaller paycheck. This commitment to interesting roles is just one of a great many reasons why the actor has grabbed people's attention suddenly.
An obvious rejection of his romantic comedy persona is at work here. Roles like Dallas are, in some cases, evidence of winking self-parody. Notably, a scene in Magic Mike where he plays bongos onstage while chanting at a darkened room of women, could be viewed as a throwback to an earlier incident in the actor's life where he was arrested for playing bongos in the early morning hours. Looking at The Paperboy in contrast, we see a conflicted reporter stuck covering a murder story in his old hometown. McConaughey has never looked this awful in a movie. Sweat continually pours down his face and a sinister scar running across his mouth, reminiscent of Heath Ledger's Joker. This role is an out-and-out rejection of movies we have seen from him before and, and a result, is making him more interesting than he has been for awhile.
The past year has altered the perception of the pretty-boy actor and opened up a renewed interest in his work. Like so many of his hard-scrabble characters, McConaughey has gotten a second chance. From the sound of it, Dallas Buyers Club will only continue his reinvention. Check it out this Friday.