Life is a series of commas, not periods.
-- Matthew McConaughey
The first time I paid attention to Matthew McConaughey was during his 2002 dragon film Reign of Fire. I was living in New York City and dragged my girlfriend to a matinee, a creature feature with Christian Bale. The story has a paint-by-numbers simplicity usually found in Roger Corman films, but McConaughey stuck out as a weird invader with a shaved head and a wild man look. For my girlfriend, he was hot eye candy and easy to look at, but for me, he was more compelling to watch than the dragons or Batman. His razor sharp focus held my attention on the edge of my seat. I'd seen McConaughey before, I loved his dopey Wooderson character in Dazed and Confused, an odd-ball stranger who lectures the younger characters: "The older you do get the more rules they're gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin' man, L-I-V-I-N," but I had never paid attention to him until he battled dragons. When you are an actor, you must convince the audience that you are sincere, even if what you're doing is relatively stupid. After the movie, I told my girlfriend I think we just witnessed the birth of The McConaissance.
Matthew McConaughey has had his fair share of dumb films. This is not the case anymore. By now, if you haven't noticed the rebirth of McConaughey's career, you might be Amish. Since his 2011 appearance in Tropic Thunder, where he both replaced and mimicked Owen Wilson (pay close attention to his cadence), McConaughey has slipped away from trademark romantic comedies, such as Ghosts of Girl Friends Past and Fool's Gold, where he often played immature rogues, and found a place in films where he can play multi-layered and damaged heroes hiding behind that matinee idol facade. In Magic Mike, he uses his looks and typical party boy persona in the first scene to create a sad world with a superficial face. In the past year, he has been stealing roles in The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club, which snagged him an Oscar for best actor. His intensity has become Chekhovian, an existential clinging to a world that moves so fast we can all relate and be entertained at the same time.
What might be his greatest achievement yet is McConaughey's HBO show True Detective. The much-ballyhooed series places McConaughey as the subtle and nuanced Rust Cohle, a nihilist and damaged cop who might be so crazy he is the only sane person in the show. In Cohle, he hunts a killer known as The Yellow King. The one literary reference to True Detective is one of the strangest, most compelling tales in the canon of weird fiction: Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow, a collection of short stories published in 1895, and the most famous passage of the story reads like this:
Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Cassilda: Indeed it's time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!
--The King in Yellow: Act I, Scene 2
McConaughey is a stranger no more. In fact, he has been here the whole time. His intensity and focus has matured past Wooderson and dragon killing, and come full circle to world weary characters so whittled down by life, and possibly the superficiality of it all. In The McConaissance, McConaughey has become not an anti-hero, but an anti-matinee idol. I keep coming back to what Brad Pitt said about sexual appeal, "Looks will get you in the door, but they won't keep you in the room." McConaughey has been in the room for over two decades now, and with his career he has moved forward with a series of commas, not periods.
I live in Austin now where McConaughey is the king. I saw him once in the warehouse district from a distance, or at least some one who looks like him. That is his power. You are always looking for the real McConaughey. When I saw him, he was dripping with charm, and was in constant motion even when he was standing still. The University of Texas has a famous tower in the middle of campus they light orange when their sports teams win, and when McConaughey won the Oscar his alma mater lit the tower orange just for him. Texas Monthly Magazine called his win "The McConaissance" this week. Damn it. I should have trademarked that phrase after the dragon movie. But it is not about a phrase, as we are in the midst of an actor's rebirth, his second act, his unmasking for the talent he always was. It's his world now. We are just livin' in it. L-I-V-I-N'.
This piece was originally published on Electric Feast