McConaughey in 'Bernie.'
NEW YORK — Six years ago, Matthew McConaughey was starring in a movie called Surfer, Dude, a film about as good as its title implies. He played a shirtless surfer plunged into an existential crises when his good luck with waves runs out.
McConaughey did undergo an existential crisis around that time, but it wasn’t about the surf. His career had bottomed out in rom-com mediocrity (his second comedy with Kate Hudson, Fool’s Gold, followed Surfer, Dude), overly depending on the charm of his Texas drawl. McConaughey resolved to do something about it.
What has followed — the so-called McConaissance — has been one of the most remarkable mid-career metamorphoses in movies. McConaughey has abruptly shifted to more challenging roles and films in a creative burst that has clearly re-energized him. He’s taken his matinee idol chips and exchanged them for an actor’s freedom.
It’s been a steady renewal, building part by part. His best-actor Academy Award nomination for Dallas Buyers Club represents a culmination, and most expect McConaughey will be crowned with a win at the Oscars on Sunday.
Here is a film-by-film account of how he got here, a step-by-step guide to the McConaissance:
THE LINCOLN LAWYER — This 2011 film came after a two-year gap in McConaughey’s filmography. Whereas McConaughey was made famous by 1996’s “A Time to Kill” playing an altruistic lawyer defending a black man in the South, in the “Lincoln Lawyer,” he plays a money-hungry, unscrupulous Los Angeles attorney with “NTGUILTY” emblazed on his license plate. It’s a slight but important course alteration toward darker material.
BERNIE — McConaughey’s career was essentially started by Austin, Texas, filmmaker Richard Linklater with “Dazed and Confused.” The role of David Wooderson has remained for McConaughey not just one role among many, but a guiding ethos. He frequently quotes his “You just gotta keep livin’ man, L-I-V-I-N” and dubbed his production company J.K. Livin. So it makes sense that any restart for McConaughey would include Linklater, whose “Bernie” features McConaughey as district attorney Danny Buck in a comic tale of small-town murder.
MAGIC MIKE — This was the brashest announcement of McConaughey’s new boldness. In Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper film, he goes to depths of sleaze most actors would shy away from. For an actor known for his quickness to de-shirt, his gyrating, blustering cowboy-themed stripper was a self-parodying wink: a rodeo clown in skivvies.
KILLER JOE — McConaughey is again on his home turf (Texas) in William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracy Letts’ twistedly comic crime tale. As a police detective with a side business of murder-for-hire, his chilling title character steals the film. It’s the third in a trio of stellar 2012 supporting roles in which McConaughey traded the leading-man spotlight for more dynamic ensembles.
THE PAPERBOY — Most everyone in Lee Daniels’ garish, sweaty Florida noir was swamped by the thick Southern Gothic melodrama. How could anyone even remember McConaughey was in “The Paperboy” after the infamous jellyfish sting scene with Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron? But the film still counts as the kind of risk McConaughey was starting to make routine.
MUD — In many years, McConaughey’s supporting role as the title character in Jeff Nichols’ Mississippi River coming-of-age film would have gotten him Oscar consideration in its own right. In “Mud,” he plays a love-sick fugitive prone to (like McConaughey, himself) wide-eyed reverie. McConaughey has the larger-than-life quality needed to make Mud seem mythic to the young boys who find him hiding out on an island.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB — McConaughey’s transformation becomes literal in the story of HIV-infected Ron Woodroof. Losing some 45 pounds, it’s as though McConaughey physically sheds his former self. But, of course, Woodroof is a classic McConaughey character: a swaggering, swashbuckling Texan. But Woodroof’s desperation — his white-knuckled fear and ferocious will to survive — is the more striking metamorphosis for the once golden, ever-grinning McConaughey.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET — He’s still gaunt in Martin Scorsese’s romp, looking roomy in his pinstripe suit. In a memorable cameo, he schools Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort on the ways of finance: It’s “a fugazi — fairy dust” he says. In a speech that sets the beat for the entire film, McConaughey thumps his chest and hums in a bizarre meditation ritual that actually comes from the actor’s own pre-scene preparation. (DiCaprio urged him to use it for the film.)
TRUE DETECTIVE — More than “Dallas Buyers Club,” the currently-airing HBO series represents the very height of McConaughey’s abilities. McConaughey plays the police detective Rust Cohle in two very different versions, separated by numerous years. The older, long-haired, hard-drinking version is more typical McConaughey. But the younger Cohle is something different entirely: intellectual, poised and laconic. It’s like the weight loss of “Dallas Buyers Club” has had an afterglow effect, reshaping his manner and physicality. It’s fitting, perhaps, that McConaughey’s best performance should be alongside Woody Harrelson, his “Surfer, Dude” co-star.
AND BEYOND? Due out in November, McConaughey stars in Christopher Nolan’s time-travelling sci-fi film “Interstellar,” one of the most anticipated movies of the year. The McConaissance continues.