Two decades ago a 23-year-old Matthew McConaughey waxed poetic about the timeless appeal of high school girls in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, and for a long time the actor himself seemed determined to stay the same age. The handsome Texan too often reveled in playing chest-baring golden gods in a string of successful but forgettable romantic comedies like Failure to Launch (2006) and Fool’s Gold (2008).
After Ghosts of Girlfriends Past in 2009, he decided to do something different: nothing. For a year and a half, he went off the radar. When he resurfaced, he was greeted with offers from top-tier directors who saw the promise of something deeper in his acting. Anchored by a terrifying dark performance as a depraved Texas assassin in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012), McConaughey revitalized his career with a flurry of brilliantly off-kilter supporting turns in Richard Linklater’s Bernie (2012), Steven Soderbergh’s stripper movie, Magic Mike (2012), and Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012).
The titular antihero role in Mud (2013, 2 hrs., 10 mins., PG-13) is another step in the right direction. McConaughey delivers the roguish charm of a grimy fugitive who befriends two young boys while hiding out on an island in the Mississippi River. It’s a part that embraces and then manipulates our affection for the actor — a trick McConaughey seems ready to repeat later this year as an unhinged stockbroker in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (out Nov. 15) and as an AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club (out Dec. 6). It looks like he’s finally found the secret to his onscreen charisma: The more he tries to hide it behind oversize characters, the brighter it shines through. A-