Under the Radar

Matthew McConaughey Figures It Out

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Matthew McConaughey seems almost certain to win a Best Actor Oscar in a couple of weeks for Dallas Buyers Club (out now on Blu-ray and DVD). It's a startling performance that caps an amazing career recovery by a guy whose career seemed to be a total disaster only three years ago.

McConaughey plays a character based on the real-life Ron Woodruff, a Texas electrician and rodeo rider who contracted HIV from a junkie (female) prostitute back in the '80s. Woodruff was determined to get access to experimental medications and has to overcome his homophobia to form an alliance with a transgender woman played by Jared Leto, who makes a startling return to acting after quite a few years chasing his rock dreams in Thirty Seconds to Mars and also seems a lock to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

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There's not a lot of suspense (guess what happens in the end) and the movie doesn't really try to chase much of dramatic arc, instead letting McConaughey work through Woodruff's issues with gays and the medical community. The character doesn't exactly have a complete change of heart and his alliances seem like a guy just doing what he has to do to survive. That lack of sentimentality makes Dallas Buyers Club a more interesting movie and one that might resonate with a lot of people who don't think they want to watch an AIDS movie.

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Even more interesting right now is McConaughey's performance as Detective Rust Cohle alongside Woody Harrelson on HBO's True Detective. The eight-episode series details a 2012 reinvestigation of a 1995 murder. McCounaughey and Harrelson appear both in the present-day and in flashbacks to their earlier investigation when the detectives were partners.

HBO has always tried to experiment with more experimental series (remember Carnivale  or John From Cincinnati?) but none of those weird shows have ever resonated like True Detective. The entire series was written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Having just one person do each of those jobs is incredibly unusual in TV but the approach makes the series have a consistent look and feel that will be really noticeable to anyone who's binged on Breaking Bad or Boardwalk Empire episodes.

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The first four episodes are amazing and it almost doesn't matter how the thing wraps up. McConaughey plays a guy who seems to be suffering from some kind of PTSD  connected to his law-enforcement experiences and his present-day performance as Cohle really captures a middle-aged guy who's checked out after failing to get a handle on what's torturing him.

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McConaughey's career got off to a promising start with an indelible performance as David Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, but things went really, really wrong when he tried to be a traditional Hollywood leading man and ended up in a series of unwatchable romantic comedies (The Wedding Planner, Failure to Launch, Fool's Gold, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past). He turned 40 in 1999 and it's like he woke up one day and said, "Screw this" and started choosing parts the weird parts instead of the movie star parts.

The present run started in 2011 with The Lincoln Lawyer, a legal thriller based on Michael Connelly's successful novels about defense attorney Mickey Haller. It's not that daring a movie but McConaughey didn't shy away from the character's unlikable traits. That rolled into a reunion with Dazed director Richard Linklater on Bernie, where he played DA Danny Buck and went full Texas, shedding most of regional-neutral traits Hollywood had tried to teach him.

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That kicked off a series of great weirdo performances: the male strip club tycoon in Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike, the contract killer/police detective in William Friedkin's Killer Joe, the tree-dwelling fugitive in Mud and even a couple of memorable appearances in season 3 of Eastbound & Down. His incredibly brief but strange performance as the trader who inspires Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street was by far the most interesting thing in an excellent movie.

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Watch True Detective if you've got access to HBO. Dallas Buyers Club will appeal to a lot of people who don't think they'd ever want to watch a movie about AIDS. Matthew McConaughey's a guy who finally got his career on track when he decided to take David Wooderson's advice to just keep livin' and take the parts he found interesting instead of sanding off all the rough edges like Hollywood wanted. There's some kind of lesson in there.

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