Alright, alright, alright: 11 great Matthew McConaughey performances, ranked

2:22 p.m Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017 Austin360 Home

What with “The Dark Tower” opening and Austin favorite son Matthew McConaughey starring in it (and dressed exactly like he just stepped out of one of his Lincoln ads), we’re taking a look back at some McConaperfomances and putting them into a McConaranking.

Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle in "True Detective" (photo: HBO)

Here we go. I am sure your favorite isn’t on here, especially if your favorite is “Interstellar.” (Note: several of these clips contain R-rated language and concepts.)

11. Jake Tyler Brigance in “A Time to Kill”(1996). This is included because of the sheer amount everyone is sweating. Remember that old episode of “Cheers” where they rank the sweatiest movies ever made? They eventually land on “Cool Hand Luke,” which is totally understandable. 

But if this inadvertent ode to the need for courtroom air conditioning (and the uselessness of fans) had been around when Cliff was sitting on his stool, it would be way up there. And, yeah, ol’ Matthew is fine. Better than fine. But all anyone remembers about this movie is how much everyone is sweating.

10. Vilmer in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” (1994). Back where it all began, baby! Around the time (more or less) that the McConalegend was starting with Wooderson in “Dazed and Confused,” our man was strapping on a mechanical leg and killing for the love of killing. As over the top as he gets (one hopes).

9. Joe Cooper in “Killer Joe” (2011). Based on the play by Tracy Letts and directed by William Friedkin, who knows a thing or two about disturbing an audience,  “Killer Joe” features McConaughey as Joe Cooper --  police detective , part-time hitman and full-time terrifying human being.  The fried chicken scene remains all kinds of disturbing.

8. Danny Buck Davidson in “Bernie” (2011). Here is McConaughey doing something he doesn’t do (or get to do?) all that often -- play the straight man. Richard Linklater directs McConaughey as the real-life Carthage district attorney who prosecutes beloved Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) for the open-and-shut murder of loathsome (in the movie) wealthy widow Marge Nugent. The film remains one of Linklater’s most controversial (Nugent’s family sure wasn’t wild about Tiede getting out of prison for a spell), but it’s a chance to see McConaughey in a chlled-out supporting role. As a friend put it, “I totally forgot he was in that”-- which should be taken as a compliment. 

7. Kenny Wells in “Gold” (2016). Almost nobody actually saw this based-loosely-on-a-true-story tale about Kenny Wells, a sketchy, balding precious metals prospector from Reno who teams up with a geologist to find fortune in Indonesia. As Wells, McConaughey dived into the part, putting on 40 pounds, sporting a mighty unflattering haircut and generally turning into a guy who is dead certain his big break is right around the corner. He claimed that this was one of his all-time favorite parts. I mean, he may say that to all the girls, but...

6. Mark Hanna in “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). A six- minute, surgical strike cameo -- nobody who saw McConaughey as the coke-snorting, martini-guzzling, hooker-endorsing and, most importantly, chest-thumping Wall Street bigwig ever forgot it. It is his Alec-Bladwin-in-“Glengarry Glen Ross” moment -- a world-of-the-film defining monologue delivered with maximum weird. McConaughey said the chest-pounding thing is something he does to warm up his voice, because of course he does. 

5. Ron Woodroof in “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013): McConaughey picked up an Oscar for his portrayal of this bull-riding, racist, homophobic guy who acquires HIV, overcomes his homophobia and starts a co-op for unapproved AIDS drugs. Many contended after the film’s release that the real-life Woodroff was both bisexual and far from the man McConaughey, who dropped to skin and bones for the role, portrayed. But it’s an excellent, complicated performance nonetheless.

4. Buddy Deeds in “Lone Star” (1996). As with many John Sayles films, “Lone Star” is complex, adult, subtle and underrated  -- so subtle, in fact, that it’s possible you totally forgot McConaughey was actually in it. He plays Buddy Deeds, a legendary sheriff whose son Sam (a stunningly good Chris Cooper), also a lawman,  struggles to get out from under his father’s shadow. This is very early McConaughey, and he still seems to be learning his craft, but wonderful, subtle moments abound. To watch it is to  contemplate what would have happened to his career had he stuck with boutique indies rather than rom-coms.  

3. Dallas in “Magic Mike” (2012). “Male stripper” might not have been the first part that sprang to mind when you thought of McConaughey, but in retrospect, he was an absolutely inspired choice. Hilarious, earnest and just a little (OK, just a lot) sleazy, McConaughey imbues Dallas with a go-for-broke energy that, as is true for so many McConaughey performances, is impossible not to watch. McConaissance starts here. 

2. David Wooderson in “Dazed and Confused” (1993). It was 25 years ago this month, August 1992, when University of Texas undergrad Matthew David McConaughey started filming Richard Linklater’s period comedy “Dazed and Confused” as David Wooderson, the guy who is a little too old to be hanging around the high schoolers who worship him. McConaughey improvised “alright, alright, alright” into the hearts of millions. 

The movie was a financial flop, but it is very possible that McConaughey as Wooderson was the most influential, non-Tarantino-directed indie performance of the early 1990s on college-age males (especially those who happened to go to schools in the South). 

I promise you -- ask any given 40- to 45-year-old in 2017, and I bet they can remember when they first saw this movie AND I bet most of them started quoting Wooderson the next day, a trend that continued for a good couple of years. And who can blame them? Everything that comes out of Wooderson’s mouth is fantastic, from “be a lot cooler if you did” to “watch the leather!” to “I get older, they stay the same age.” 

Of the many fascinating things about this lightning in bottle performance is McConaughey’s look. The bowl cut, the mustache -- if anything, his movie star looks are actually toned way down; he never looked like that again. It remains one of the most memorable debuts of all time.  

Should Wooderson be No. 1? Probably. Except then there’s...

1. Rust Cohle in “True Detective” (2014). Here, it is: the ultimate dramatic McConaughey. It’s our man at the peak of his powers, charismatic and weird and scary. 

We see Cohle at two different times -- the cleanish cut cop with the nihilistic vibe and the total burnout who looked into the abyss and blinked hard.  He’s mesmerizing at both. Sometimes he waving a gun and lecturing poor Woody Harrelson, sometimes he’s able to hold our attention by just sitting there and talking and tearing beer cans into ashtrays.

It’s a performance in which you can see flashes of virtually every other McConaughey role (most of which are funny) while being dead-eyed serious the entire time. 

Cohle touches on Dallas’ low-rent vibe, Cooper’s violence and Deeds’ struggle with being a good cop. The working-class lawman from “The Lincoln Lawyer” is in there. He’s a Wooderson whose sense of humor has been burnt out by existential horror (and probably a whole lot of drugs). Time is a flat circle, indeed.

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