'True Detective' and the Ascent of Matthew McConaughey

Alright alright alright (AP)
January 14, 2014

While he was toiling along in dreadful romcom after dreadful romcom, it was easy to be frustrated by Matthew McConaughey. We had seen glimpses of something truly special in him from time to time: the laid-back stoner trawling for high school teens in Dazed and Confused; the preacher-man speaking up for the faithful in Contact; the mysterious narrator in the criminally underrated (and criminally under-seen) paranormal thriller Frailty. Those of us drawn to his drawl were frequently put off by his unending commitment to crap.

But what if he was playing the long game? What if he took on those roles to bank enough "screw you" money so he could pick and choose what he'd do later on in life? What if he's entered that next phase in his career?

What if we're living through the Golden Age of Matthew McConaughey?*

I ask because it seems like every week there's a new Matthew McConaughey project to get excited about. For instance, this week saw the debut of HBO's True Detective, an eight-episode miniseries starring McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as detectives Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, respectively. The show revolves around the investigation of a ritual killing of some sort in the swamps of Louisiana. The show itself, at least in the pilot, has an interestingly bifurcated structure: We flip back and forth between the mid-1990s and 2012. In the near-present, the two are being interviewed by a pair of detectives about the killing we see them investigating in 1995. The oddly non-linear structure allows the story to unfold in a captivating, non-spoon-fed sort of way. The audience is piecing things together at the same time the cops questions Cohle and Hart are.

This structure is aided in large part by McConaughey's offscreen transformation in the intervening years. We see him as clean-cut and gaunt in 1995; by 2012 he is stringy-haired and hankering for his mid-day beers. But beneath the external transformation we see that little has changed. He is still the lone weirdo that freaked his partner out by discussing the meaninglessness of life. His eyes remain cool and detached. He is a transfixing figure, akin to Lance Henriksen's Frank Black on the too-short-lived Fox series Millennium. His demeanor and his transformation convince the audience to tune in next week; it's been a while since I've so desperately wanted to watch the second episode of a television show and been unable to.**

As McConaughey lights up the small screen he does the same on the big. He has a small part in The Wolf of Wall Street. Small, but key: As a senior trader who takes the titular wolf under his wing, McConaughey's Mark Hanna lays out the law of the high rise jungle to the wide-eyed Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Between booze and coke at lunch and strip clubs and coke at dinner comes the fleecing: separating the gullible from their money. It doesn't matter if they make or lose money; all that matters is they make the trades. When they make the trades, you get the commission. And when you get the commission, you can afford all the steaks and martinis and hookers in the world. The scene closes with McConaughey beating on his chest and chanting, a rhythm we see picked up later in the film and repeated by countless traders in an evocation of a tribal ritual. This tribe's forebear? Matthew McConaughey.

You'll be seeing McConaughey on television channels other than HBO in the coming weeks, as his powerful turn in Dallas Buyers Club is earning all sorts of awards buzz. After taking home the Golden Globe for best actor in a dramatic film—a mild upset, given the wave of support behind 12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor—he is a strong contender at the Oscars. And for good reason! His Ron Woodroof is a fascinating character, one filled with self-doubt and rage at a world he feels has betrayed him. I'm a little ambivalent on the film as a whole, but there's no denying McConaughey is brilliant in it.

It wouldn't be a golden age if we weren't dealing with multiple years, and a quick perusal of McConaughey's IMDB page turns up a motherlode of great performances in bit parts going back to 2008's Tropic Thunder, including striking performances in BernieMud, and Magic MikeHe's even shown up on Eastbound and Down, a Free Beacon favorite. And, of course, he stars in the most anticipated movie of 2014, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.

As Mr. McConaughey might say: "Alright alright alright." It's his world. We're just lucky enough to be livin'—L-I-V-I-N—in it.

*As my boss asks, "How many ages can we be living in?" Well, one should draw a distinction between a "year" (as in, The Year of Amy Adams) and an "age." By my count, we are currently living in two golden ages: The Golden Age of Television and The Golden Age of Matthew McConaughey. But I might be missing a few. Suggestions are always welcome on Twitter!

**Damn you, Golden Age of Streaming! (That's three golden ages, if you're keeping track at home. Strike the preceding footnote.)