The familiar and endlessly convincing grimace of Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle
On Saturday night, True Detective completed its UK run on Sky Atlantic. Of all the many brilliant moments the first season offered up, there's one in the third episode that I've returned to again and again. Matthew McConaughey’s character, Rust Cohle, and Woody Harrelson’s, Marty Hart, are standing at the edge of a marquee tent, looking in at the crowd of Evangelical nuts assembled inside. The preacher paces about on stage, screaming various insanities, as the congregation put money in the collection basket, wave their arms around and rock back and forth like teenagers waiting to be released from a bad pill experience. McConaughey and Harrelson are arguing about religion and its value in keeping people good, and McConaughey – weary of his partner’s bullshit rationalisations – slumps back against a post and asks, “What’s it say about life? You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe, just to get through the goddamn day?"
As I said, it's a moment that's really stuck with me as I've tried to process McConaughey and his career turnaround. For the longest while, I didn’t know why – it’s a good scene, well acted and brilliantly written, but what about it had me watching it repeatedly? What about it said something deeper?
I started wondering whether something like this must’ve actually happened to McConaughey in real life. In 2009 or ’10 McConaughey, the playboy dickhead who seemingly had everything – the Brazilian model girlfriend, the rippling waxed abdomen, the no-shirts-allowed friendship with pre-disgrace Lance Armstrong – must’ve looked out on a similar group of people rejoicing in something which also had no basis in reality – women creaming themselves over Fool’s Gold, Failure to Launch and The Wedding Planner – and asked himself wearily what they, and he, were doing.
His onscreen turnaround began in 2011 with his role in the still-largely-unseen The Lincoln Lawyer, a sunbaked adaptation of Michael Connelly’s crime novel where he plays a fucked over attorney in meltdown, and ended on the 2nd of March this year with him winning the Academy Award for his role in Dallas Buyers Club. There on stage at the Hollywood Dolby Theatre, the star of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days stood atop the acting world, sans the blonde hair and orange muscles he’d previously been known for, for his part in a film about AIDS, depleted American masculinity and transgenderism.
But baby, this is Hollywood, and turnarounds are ten a penny. John Travolta, Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Jr have all resurrected their careers on the back of decent roles – before, in Rourke and Travolta’s case, flushing them back down the toilet. What separates McConaughey is the pace at which he went from being a laughing stock to a genuinely electrifying character actor; it happened neither quickly, with one role – as with Rourke and Travolta – or slowly, over the course of many years. It happened in three years, with six roles: The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe, Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street and True Detective.
The love people have for him at the moment is staggering. Even more staggering is the love men have for him specifically as, four years ago, we hated the prick for showing up the kind of bog-average, Ritz-Cracker romance we had to offer the world. But his characters are cool now – and thus so is he, because they’re really all we have to go on. He’s deep, dark and dangerous, and be it McConaughey, Rust Cohle or Killer Joe Cooper we’re imagining, he’s the person we all want to be.
This love is warranted, too – he’s become a great actor, capable of comedy and tragedy, and, as his role in Dallas Buyers Club attests, is willing to sacrifice himself physically to give a character depth. He also steals scene with ease, as well as entire films despite only having a minor part – see his chest-thumping Mark Hanna in The Wolf of Wall Street. In fact, in most of his recent films, the stories seem almost incidental – we watch because he’s onscreen, we watch his quirks, the way he commands the frame. Unlike with a lot of other Hollywood leading men, the darkness he has about him appears to come from some place real.
But doesn’t our love for him go beyond this? Doesn’t it seem bigger than liking an actor because he can act, liking a character because there’s depth? In my group of friends he’s now spoken about in almost cultish terms – and don’t get me wrong, I’m a part of this cult. I’ll go see a film just because he’s in it, convincing as many people as possible to go see it with me.
My love for him began relatively early on in his transformation, I suppose, seeing The Lincoln Lawyer upon its release, and over the years I’ve witnessed more and more people follow suit because, in him, they saw the same thing I did: the turnaround, the story. It’s like when we hear a good song by a band no one’s heard of and make sure to tell everyone so that we can somehow take credit for it. I banged on about The Lincoln Lawyer and Killer Joe and Mud, and though most sneered at the mention of McConaughey, I had faith; I knew I’d be validated because, in the end, he and these films were so fucking good.
There’s something about our twisted nature that delights in us asking, “Have you heard of this?” when we know the answer is no. We feel intelligent, superior. But to ask the same and then have what we’re praising be shit all over and dismissed out of hand delights us, especially when we know the doubters will be proven wrong.
Again, this isn’t something that could’ve happened to anyone – McConaughey is smart, has made smart decisions and deserves a shitheap of credit for having the balls and motivation to change. But our love for him does go beyond his talent; when we praise him, we more so praise his story because – seeing ourselves as underdogs – we saw him as one, too. We gravitated towards his rise because we liked to imagine that it could predict our own – in him, we also saw ourselves shedding the shames and failures of the past, reinventing ourselves as competent and accomplished.
When the three-pronged attack of True Detective, The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club culminated in the Oscar, suddenly everyone and their mothers were convinced of his credentials. And yet, for those of us who’d hitched our wagons early, it feels now like the start of a disillusionment. We had too much invested in his rise and not enough in his victory, and as with anyone who becomes successful, his success now asks questions of our own, namely “Where the fuck is it?"
We identified with him and so should be able to follow through on our own reinventions but no – we’re too weak and lazy.
Disillusionment is inevitable, also, because you suspect McConaughey himself will fuck things up. He's already confirmed he'll not be returning for the second season of True Detective and perhaps in the absence of that the lure of eight-figure-salary action films will prove too much for him to resist. With his place in acting lore already guaranteed, his motivation to be dark and edgy may well melt into a bucket of cash. Though winning the Oscar represents all he's done to turn his career around, it probably also represents the point where it begins to reenter the toilet.
The actor he's perhaps most comparable with is Ryan Gosling. Gosling was always in decent stuff but was known mostly for the cold, schmaltzy vomit of The Notebook. Then, with Half Nelson, he went on a scalding-hot tear of great roles in good films – Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine, Crazy Stupid Love, Drive – before bottoming out a shitload with Gangster Squad and Only God Forgives. He then had the foresight to fake retire and yank himself out of the limelight, and in the meantime, he was adored by men and women alike.
This is McConaughey’s biggest threat right now – he’s everywhere, as ubiquitous as dogshit, and unless he anticipates the backlash, which is coming, and lies low like his character in Mud on an island somewhere, we’re all going to wake up soon and think, 'Why did I ever like that guy?' Which is cruel but so is life; and someone else will come along – Ryan Reynolds? Channing Tatum? Danny Dyer? – to become the new transformation story.
Old stories get replaced with the new. Rust Cohle said it best, again in episode three of True Detective: “I have seen the finale of thousands of lives, man – young, old – each one so sure of their realness, that their sensory experience constituted a unique individual with purpose, meaning – so certain that they were more than a biological puppet. Truth wills out. Everybody sees once the strings are cut off.”
I'll miss Rust Cohle like a friend. I hope Matthew McConaughey has it in him to fathom up a few more for me.