McConaughey was disconcertingly charming when he stepped on the Follywood scene in Dazed and Confused. He was almost too glossy, like alot of his contemporaries who could not act: Keanu Reeves, Christian Slater, Tom Cruise. This latest brand of heartthrob chose roles that reinforced their attraction. They played it safe, and handsome. He did have a role in a great John Sayles movie called Lone Star, it made me think at the time that he was worthy of following.
It didn’t help that one night I attended a positively surreal party in the Hollywood Hills and he was there with nothing but shorts and trainers on playing basketball and chewing on the stub of a cigar. He was probably in his prime, maybe 35, and I was surprised to see that he was, well, normal-looking, sans the chewed up cigar. Like alot of stars, the camera simply loves him. He walked right by me and I thought, “really?” A few weeks later, I saw him in a magazine, a watch ad or something and I couldn’t believe it was the same guy: caramel colored and smooth like a romanesque statue in Onassis’ house.
I have to check myself when I say that I think the work that McConaughey is doing is, well, beyond anything I have seen an actor do in a long time. He has lost his gloss and become infinitely more interesting to look at. He has taken some gut-wrenching roles in the last year that diverge so cleanly from his previous playboy persona that it’s like watching a completely different person.
Dallas Buyer’s Club was low hanging fruit, as far as I could tell from the trailer. We are always impressed when someone loses a ton of weight for a role. That he started out skinny and over the course of the story became a Giacometti was impressive, but it was his relationship to death that really blew me away. You cannot lose that much weight without knowing the deep threat of starvation. This cowboy was watching his legacy, his identity slip away. There are moments in this movie that cut right through the conventional manipulation of our emotions. You never see him at the top of his macho game, you only see his deterioration and his arduous transformation into an altruist. McConaughey played this so close to the bone that I cannot imagine anyone else pulling it off.
True Detective is not just a crime story set in the South. It’s drilling a much deeper well, down to Faulknerian roots. Rustin Cohle, McConaughey’s character, is the voice of an old Southern brand of existentialism, a kind of enlightenment that contains no peace. It has everything to do with man’s infliction on man. It has everything to do with the fundamental sorrow of being human and how we use it to manipulate, cajole, and incarcerate each other.
I have read some criticism of Cohle’s diatribes and the only thing I can think is: maybe you have to live in a place where slavery was a known fact, where the lines drawn between the races, the sexes, the old and the young are indelible, fixed. The paradox is the poetry arising from that singular, site specific knowledge. It’s where the Blues derived. It’s a strange beauty and someone like McConaughey, who was raised in Texas, has either known it up close or intuited it beautifully. When he talks about time being
an illusion, you can only really know that feeling when you live in a place that feels like it has not changed in a million years.
I have to give a nod to Woody Harrelson, who by contrast, I have always loved, and who has worked as the perfect foil to McConaughey’s Rust. Marty has two distinct narratives: the official Southern Gentleman Playbook in which he is the responsible, family man upholding the cut-and-dry law, and the Other, the up all night, falling apart at the seams, questioning God kinda man.
While the two characters are at odds, they are going to bat for each other years later, defending their obviously off-book tactics in meeting their objective which was reigning in a known evil. The loyalty they exhibit after years of not speaking is also, distinctly Southern. Both of them have a passing expression of swallowed pain, resignation and drunken futility that is so familiar to me having lived and dated in Louisiana.
It may be that we live in a time when it is clear that human folly is irreversible; as Rust says, “humans are an aberation, Nature created something separate from itself.” The more modern iterations of this truth sting mightily, like Katrina, a storm arguably built by human disregard for Nature’s sanctity and responded to with a level of indifference that stunned even Southerners.
I’m kind of like Rust. Not much impresses me. But McConaughey has.