Film Comment: The Fall and Rise of Matthew McConaughey


It wasn’t always like this. Matthew McConaughey was once a great prospect. He was discovered in ’93 by Richard Linklater (School of Rock) for his coming of age high school movie, Daxed and Confused. Dick was so bowled over by McConaughey performance, that the director threw more lines and screen time at him, gaving birth to one of the great sleezebags of cinema history; “That’s what I like about these high school girls, I get older, they stay the same age.”

Three years later he was being hailed for his turn in A Time To Kill, opposite Samuel L. Jackson and Sandra Bullock. McConaughey played an up and coming lawyer, a role he knew well; before moving into film school he was studying to become one. This was the same year Tom Cruise appeared in The Firm, another film about lawyers, another John Grisham adaptation, and it seemed McConaughey had the better of the old Top Gun actor. Great things would surely come.

Except they didn’t. He took roles in Speilberg’s Amistad, Zemeckis’ Contact and Ron Howard’s EdTV but the major breakthrough never came, and by the time the Wedding Planner arrived it looked like McConaughey’s star had faded. A successful rom-com it seemed he’d found a niche, but he wasn’t satisfied. He tried his hand at action twice, with Reign of Fire and Sahara. Reign of Fire saw him opposite Christian Bale in a poorly conceived tale of dragons vs the US Army. While Bale went on to make Batman Begins in 2005, McConaughey was making Sahara, a hit, but with a budget so large it lost anything between $40-$80 million.

It looked like McConaughey was stuck. His biggest profits came form rom-coms and so he moved from one to the next; How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. He could keep making money, but each film was worse than the last.

Then in 2008, McConaughey was drafted into Tropic Thunder, a Ben Stiller comedy famous for blacking-up Robert Downey Jr and explaining why going ‘full retard’ won’t win you an Oscar. Owen Wilson was set to star in a minor role as an agent, but after personal problems kept him off set, they turned to McConaughey. He realised something; he wanted to leave something behind for his kids that wasn’t just a string of bad rom-coms. Having met Danny McBride on set, he went on to star in Danny’s Eastbound & Down, another turn as an agent. More critical praise followed. He returned to his role as a lawyer, first in The Lincoln Lawyer, then in Bernie. He was receiving calls from acclaimed directors, and they didn’t ask for an audition. He starred in Magic Mike and talk of an Academy Award nomination followed. Next year he’s set to star in The Wolf of Wall Street, the new film by Martin Scorsese. The guy who has taken his shirt off in 17 films was finally finding his feet again.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, Killer Joe isn’t another rom-com. Far from it.

Back in the 70s, William Friedkin won the Academy Award for Best Director. Then he made $440 million from a $12 million budget. The films: The French Connection and The Exorcist. At 77 you’d have expected some of that magic to fade, for Friedkin to mellow. That’s not the case. Just as audiences walked out of The Exorcist as a young girl masturbated with a crucifix, so they walked from Killer Joe. Probably when Matt takes the virginity of a young girl, as a payment for murdering her mother. It’s not entirely consensual. Or maybe later, when he smashed Gina Gershon in the face, then forces her to do something awful things with a piece of fried chicken.

This isn’t a rom-com, it’s a bleak film noir where terrible things happen.

McConaughey plays the eponymous Killer Joe, hired by Emile Hirsh to kill his mother for a $50,000 insurance policy payout. With no money to pay for the hit, Joe offers to take Emile’s sister as a retainer. Bloody consequences follow. Too bloody for some. The aforementioned walk outs followed and while the film has critical acclaim, it never found its audience. For something this far from the mainstream, that’s expected, but also a shame. McConaughey’s pitiless performance deserves more viewers, and he needs the encouragement to stay away from middle of the road fare.

Killer Joe (2011), directed by William Friedkin, is released on Blu-ray disc and DVD from Entertainment One, Certificate 18. 



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