Mark it down, folks: 2013 was the year I finally stopped worrying and learned to love Matthew McConaughey.
In the past, not liking him was kind of my “thing.” I’m not sure if it was the constant bongo playing, the shirtlessness-as-a-life-choice, or his stoner-genius life’s motto, “JKL” (stands for “Just keep living” in case you didn’t know), but the guy bugged the heck of me. And as an actor, I felt like he coasted on good hair, good teeth, and good ol’ boy charm.
That being said, there was one role I loved him in: His first, as the irresistible sleazeball David Wooderson in Dazed and Confused. (Wooderson was famous for his take on high school girls: “I get older, they stay the same age!”) That, I thought, was the real McConaughey—a red neck stud, an unrepentant bad boy, a true American archetype. If he could just tap into that, he’d really be onto something.
Well, he’s onto something.
Because in the last few years, McConaughey has stopped trying to be a heartthrob, or whatever Hollywood expects him to be, and has embraced his own particular brand of reptilian charm. As a result, he’s given some of the best performances of his career—Magic Mike, Mud, Killer Joe, Bernie.
And he has now reached new heights with his astonishing work in Dallas Buyers Club. No, not because he lost a jaw-dropping amount of weight for the role of bull rider/electrician Ron Woodroof, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985—I’m not impressed by actors' parlor tricks. It’s because he so fully inhabits the part: First he shows us a man who burns both ends of the candle so hard, he barely notices that he’s wasting away. Then, he shows us Woodroof’s anger and revulsion at his diagnosis. (The film doesn’t shy away from Woodroof’s homophobia, which only adds to its eventual poignancy when he works shoulder to shoulder with gay men.) He’s mesmerizing as his character channels all his restless energy into the smuggling and selling of illegal AIDS treatments—saving his own life and making a dime in the process, a true American hustler. But it’s his relationship with Rayon (Jared Leto), a pre-op transsexual with AIDS—his business partner, unlikely bedfellow, and ultimately best friend—that will truly break your heart.
Leto is brilliant, too, by the way—finally using his delicate beauty to perfect effect and contrasting Rayon’s gentle nature with his take-no-guff strength—and there’s justifiably Oscar talk for both actors. The wily direction of Jean-Marc Vallée perfectly captures the anything goes desperation of the time. (Jennifer Garner, however, playing an idealistic doctor who helps Woodroof, fails to make much of an impression.)
In the end, it’s McConaughey who is the real revelation here. I’ll be rooting for him at this year’s Oscar’s. And, of course, encouraging him to JKL.