Sometimes it feels like Matthew McConaughey never went away. A solidly likable, always highly entertaining presence on camera even when (especially when?) he’s playing a complete reprobate, he’s an actor that can turn so-so films into must-sees simply by turning up. Remember his bizarre chest-thumping antics in his Wolf of Wall Street cameo? In a three-hour Martin Scorsese epic about millionaire drug-addled frat boys where Leonardo DiCaprio spent half the film acting like a human Slinky, he still somehow managed to be the most memorable thing: that’s a skill not easily dismissed.
And yet for a long while there, McConaughey was pretty much dismissed by Hollywood as a lightweight, a pretty boy content to waste his days in sub-par romantic comedies. Even the man himself says that his detour into fluff like The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (which isn’t that bad, honest) was a pretty severe derailment for an actor who a decade earlier had been making waves in films like Contact and Lone Star.
His career revival at the start of this decade wasn’t quite as abrupt as it seems now: appearances in films like Bernie and The Lincoln Lawyer signalled he was an actor that wanted to be taken seriously again without ever quite showing him off to his full potential. But it’s safe to say that coming out with Killer Joe and Mud within the space of a year let everybody know that McConaughey was sick and tired of playing it safe. Both films are available on SBS On Demand, and together they show the two extremes of him as an actor. He’s possessed of a boundless charm and down-to-earth decency, and he’s not afraid to show how that charm can get people to drop their guard and let pure evil into their lives.
It seems strange that McConaughey hasn’t played more bad guys in his career. Right from his star-making arrival in Dazed and Confused he’s been an actor perfectly aware that he’s a very charming man, and that kind of self-awareness can easily turn menacing. But to date Killer Joe is his only full turn to the dark side; at least we have him playing evil incarnate, AKA The Man in Black, in the upcoming Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower to look forward to.
Based on Tracey Letts’ 1993 play, Killer Joe is a sleazy slice of Southern Gothic revolving around a trio of criminals – dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), son Chris (Emile Hirsch) and stepmum Sharla (Gina Gershon) – too stupid to figure out a way to make crime pay. They’re also too stupid to figure out that having anything to do with McConaughey’s full-time cop, part-time contract killer Joe is an extremely bad idea. And as for basically handing their child-like fourth member Dottie (Juno Temple) over to him as payment for him murdering their mother for the insurance… yeah, that’s definitely crossing a whole lot of lines.
Director William Friedkin doesn’t exactly undercut the film’s contempt for its redneck characters, but he doesn’t wallow in it either, constantly pushing the lurid story forward while giving the cast room to turn their characters into individuals. But it’s Joe who’s the black hole at the core of this film, radiating a kind of evil that’s hard to look away from. There’s a scene here where Joe humiliates Sharla by forcing her to eat (well, not exactly “eat”) a fried chicken drumstick that’s one of the most unpleasantly sexually suggestive things you’ll see in movies, and a large part of that comes from McConaughey’s evil glee. He’s a good ol’ boy gone real bad, and you’ll never look at him quite the same way again.
Despite having Matthew McConaughey as the sole presence on the poster, Mud is really all about being a kid - specifically 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan), who lives with his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) on a riverboat in Arkansas. His parent’s relationship is crumbling; to escape the tensions at home, Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) spend their days exploring the river, including an isolated island where a recent flood has dumped a boat high up in a tree.
Enter McConaughey, here playing a (literal) drifter named Mud. Mud is the archetypical McConaughey character: a down-to-earth charmer with just a hint of danger. Unlike Killer Joe, here his charm isn’t put to evil ends: when he strikes a deal with the kids – if they help him fix up the boat and get back his girl (Reese Witherspoon), he’ll give them his pistol – we can be sure he’s going to do something close to the right thing by them in the end.
This is a coming-of-age tale, but director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Midnight Special, Loving) isn’t interested in polishing the usual clichés. Mud himself is the perfect example of that, as he’s both the insanely cool older brother-figure who guides the teens through learning about life and love, and a legitimately dodgy figure wanted by both the law and a band of thugs for murdering the last boyfriend of his dream girl. He starts out as a guy you’d want to grow up to be: it’s a measure of how good this film is that by the end he seems even cooler while also being someone you’re glad to see moving on.
Follow the author here: @morrbeat