The character of Matthew McConaughey himself looms as large as any of his roles.
If you live in Austin, he is the movie star next door, the guy in the burnt orange suit on the sidelines at University of Texas games in his role as (yes this is real) “minister of culture” for the school. He’s the guy you might run into buying a sixer at a corner store or creating his own whiskey or teaching a class at UT — all of which, somehow, feels incredibly on-brand.
We think of something particular when we think of the MoConnabrand, a casual charm embodied by the phrase he adopted from his breakout role in “Dazed and Confused” — “Just keep livin.’” (Ironically, he confronted this notion quite literally as Ron Woodruff, the hard-partying electrician who discovers he has AIDS in "Dallas Buyers Club." It's never easier to grab an Oscar, which he did, than when an actor does a good job playing hard against type, but I see Woodruff as a classic McConaughey character: A fellow who might seem sketchy but is a fundamentally OK guy with a complicated backstory who Does The Right Thing.)
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Here then, in ascending order (bearing in mind the gap between them is vanishingly small) from least to most, are the five most Matthew McConaughey parts McConaughey ever played.
5. Mark Hanna in “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). From something I wrote a few years back about Hanna: “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.”
4. Dallas in “Magic Mike” (2012). A part that asks a cinematic question to which we did not know we needed an answer: “What if Wooderson was a stripper?” The McConaissance starts with McConaughey as the player-manager of a crew of “male entertainers.” As Dallas, McConaughey rides that edge of self-awareness that characterizes the most McConaughey of McConaughey performances. Hilarious, earnest and sleazy, Dallas ended up being the perfect way to introduce audiences to McConnna 2.0.
3. Rust Cohle in “True Detective” (2014). Again, McConaughey somehow made this performance both a revelation and a “yeah, this tracks” moment. Our man is dazzling playing Cohle as both the younger cleanish-cut cop with the nihilistic vibe and the older burnout who looked into the abyss and blinked.
2. Moondog in “The Beach Bum.” Audiences howled with recognition at the South by Southwest premiere of Harmony Korine’s “the Beach Bum,” mostly because Moondog was like a parody of a McConnacharacter come to sweet, sweet life. Living a life full of drugs, sex and hanging out on boats, Moondog wanders around in a robe and takes absolutely nothing seriously. (Seeing McConaughey in this particular screening watching himself play this parody of himself almost chucked the entire crowd into the fifth dimension.)
1. David Wooderson in “Dazed and Confused” (1993). No. 1 couldn’t be anything else, now, could it? David Wooderson is the guy who is a little too old to be hanging around the high-schoolers who worship him, the guy whose cool is tangible from the minute he walks into the scene. Everything he says sounds awesome (“watch the leather!"; “... be a lot cooler if you did”), everything he does looks awesome (shooting pool, talking about his car, smoking outside the Emporium). The performance from which all others in the McConnaverse proceed.