It could be said that for the last couple of years Matthew McConaughey has stolen the show in just about everything he’s laid his hands upon. It began in the summer of 2012. Joss Whedon had torn up box office records with The Avengers, and the world waited patiently for the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. In the gap between these two blockbusters, a filthy gem appeared, a gritty American B-movie called Killer Joe. Directed by the legendary William Friedkin – famed for The French Connection, The Exorcist, and the wildly underrated Sorcerer – no one could have predicted that this was to be the beginning of McConaughey’s fairytale ascendence from Hollywood’s wasteland for the not-quite-stars of yesteryear to the glitz and shine of the Oscar podium.
Killer Joe is an unpleasant little movie at times, but it’s also a great one, and an exhilarating showcase for McConaughey’s talents as an actor; each and every line of Tracey Letts’ jet-black script oozes from McConaughey’s lips with with scathing malice, with the now-infamous chicken leg scene acting as a masterclass in tension, performance, and coal-black humour from the Texan. While this was one of the first critically-acclaimed performances of McConaughey’s reemergence in the Hollywood limelight, it was preceded by The Lincoln Lawyer, a role that brought to mind his star-making performance in Joel Schumacher’s 1996 court-room thriller A Time to Kill, and a small but effective supporting role in Richard Linklater’s impressive Bernie – both highlighted how the tides had turned. It was clear that a star was (re)born.
The rest can only be described as a fairytale story for the rags-to-riches narrative that appears integral to McConaughey’s recent success. Forgotten are the days of old wherein a series of questionable career choices went to lengths to sully the name of a once-promising star: Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past are among the prime offenders in his turbulent filmography. Perhaps he has benefited from ageing gracefully; whereas earlier films such as those just mentioned have depended on McConaughey’s physique as his sole asset, more recent performances such as those contained within Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, Jeff Nichols’ Mud, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and HBO’s searing True Detective have employed the actor’s true talents of intelligence, presence, and intensity to often startling effect. However, of all the scenes that he has stolen recently the one that we will always return to is his explosive and exhilarating performance in Scorsese’s recent masterpiece The Wolf of Wall Street.
In a film littered with fantastic performances by the likes of Leo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, and the legend that is Rob Reiner, it is McConaughey’s brief but powerful presence as Mark Hanna that threatens to steal the show. Occupying little more than five minutes of the film’s almost three-hour running time, McConaughey’s Hanna epitomises both the world and tone that Scorsese sets out to create. For you see The Wolf of Wall Street, at its heart, is a comedy. You could argue that is in fact a farce, with slapstick moments of debauchery suggesting that director Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (the genius behind HBO’s The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire) are not attempting to deify these individuals at all, that they are instead mocking the excesses and indulgences of a particular breed of Wall Street moron. Consider the lengthy boardroom conversation in which the principle discussion centres on whether or not you can look a dwarf directly in the eye; these lotus-eaters are so overwhelmed by their pig-headed hedonisms that they cannot see the ludicrousness in what they do. Take Jordan Belfort’s cameo on top of this. It’s Scorsese and Winter having the final laugh: Belfort, still unable to see the wood for the trees, becomes a co-conspirator in his own scathing mockery.
To surprisingly frequent displeasure, this reading of the film does rely on interpreting DiCaprio’s eccentric if entertaining Jordan Belfort as the villain of the piece. But, as film lovers continue to debate, could Darth Vader have ever been so without the guidance of Darth Sidious? Belfort’s tragedy is completely indebted to the impression of McConaughey’s Hanna, a grotesque, humming symbol of the corruption and decadence that polluted Wall Street in the early 1990s. “The name of the game,” Hanna purrs, “[is to] move the money from the client’s pocket into your pocket”; with a line of coke and shrug of his shoulders Hanna makes clear exactly what his people do and McConaughey’s visceral, expressive performance communicates this message with verve and humour intact. The scene is short and is punctuated by moments of questionable advice (cocaine and masturbation are key to success on Wall Street) and yet McConaughey ensures that Hanna is never a caricature. The scene is framed by a 1:85 widescreen panoramic of New York City, offering a snapshot of an America whose capitalist, hedonistic infrastructure created the potential for such individuals in the first place; we are left with no doubt that this is their town – and Hanna’s presence continues to reverberate throughout the rest of the film.