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Matthew McConaughey: Coolest Man in America?

• January 10, 2014 • 12:00 PM

True Detective. (Photo: Courtesy of HBO)

With a new series on HBO and a starring role in an upcoming Christopher Nolan movie, everything’s in place for the former Fool’s Gold star.

There is no debate over the Coolest Woman in the World. It’s Beyonce. (You’re not going to try and debate me on this.) (Wait, you seriously are?) (Seriously?) (Get out.)

The running for Coolest Dude, however, is a more open field. If it were a horse race, it would include, like, 5,000 horses, and they’d all have really great hair, wry senses of humor, and relationships with an older auteur producer or director. But as we look upon 2014 with the weary, glazed eyes of people who sat through both Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle in the same Christmas marathon session, one horse-man might have the edge going into the new year.

In the latest version of their Hollywood Prospectus podcast, Grantland’s Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan preemptively award McConaughey Man of the Year status for 2014 based on the strength of his upcoming slate, in particular HBO’s True Detective and Chris Nolan’s Interstellar. I think Greenwald and Ryan are spot-on, though I’m loath to call any year so early when there’s a P.T. Anderson film based on a Thomas Pynchon book starring Joaquin Phoenix still to come. But McConaughey’s place in the front of the pack right now is indisputable, and I’d like to put forward another possible accolade: Coolest Man in America. (As for the other possibilities: Ryan Gosling is Canadian, so we can put him aside; Kanye regressed a bit after the “Bound 2” video, which, good, bad, whatever, isn’t really cool; and Russell Westbrook—I’m just not prepared to start that kind of controversy.)

McConaughey’s momentum has disappeared before, and yet, that seems unlikely this time around.

Let’s start with True Detective. True Detective is perfect in a very specific way: it exists at the intersection of every important current trend in TV. First, it features actors more known for their movie work in lead roles, a movement so widespread in the wake of The New Girl and Boardwalk Empire and House of Cards that the backlash can’t be far off. Second, it features a serial-killer narrative, always significant in American fiction but recently reaching a sort of fever pitch. Third, it’s a mini-series, a form that, in the era of Web streaming and online discussion, is gaining traction as an ideal narrative delivery vehicle in terms of capitalizing on public attention and bridging the gap between film and conventional TV. Fourth, it’s on premium cable, so VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED. And fifth, there’s a built-in mechanism that assures reinvention if the show gets picked up for a second season, a trail blazed by FX’s American Horror Story.

McConaughey isn’t just riding this train: he’s conducting it. Driving around Los Angeles, his windswept mug scowls at you from pretty much every billboard. Reaping maximum possible McConaughey, the role doesn’t require him to obscure his weapons-grade good looks, a la Dallas Buyers Club, so much as distill them down to their basest possible substance. McConaughey in True Detective appears unpretentious, flayed-flesh raw, and so physically streamlined that he looks like he walked straight out of a blueprint. The presence of Woody Harrelson, an actor as dynamic and nuanced as any working in Hollywood right now, doesn’t hurt, either. McConaughey, like most truly gifted but sub-pantheon actors—and this is something that Greenwald and Ryan touch on well when discussing Dark McConaughey, what you might call his Failure to Launch period—thrives when located alongside other talented performers who can bare the weight of the work with him. McConaughey isn’t Joaquin Phoenix—or even Leo DiCaprio or George Clooney, movie-star personalities who can occupy gravitational centers that would crush almost anyone else—but he doesn’t need to be, either.

And here’s another McConaughey advantage, a secret weapon, if you will, that elevates his Cool status by at least one Gosling: dude has DEEP CUTS. (McConaughey’s Deep Cuts, trademark pending.) I call your attention to Killer Joe, a 2011 NC-17 burner that grossed south of two million domestically, despite being directed by one of our better directors (William Friedkin), written by one of our better writers (Tracy Letts), and starring many able thespians (Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, and a mesmerizing Juno Temple). While it might have flown low in terms of both public and critical attention, Killer Joe deserves credit as one of the best movies of this still-young decade, a boiling pot that takes on the difference between idiocy and evil with a deft, entertaining touch. The best part of the movie—better than the script, which is excellent, conversational, moralistic, and roughly hewn as a tree house; better than Friedkin’s maniac eye—is McConaughey, who plays a character so entrancing and horrifying that he seems extra-human, like a god come down from the mountain, only man for his own, not-good purposes. And I don’t want to give much away, but there is one scene, involving fellatio and a chicken wing, that lands like a golf ball into a wet green.

Momentum is a curious thing, because momentum doesn’t abide by physics: it’ll disappear as fast as it seemed to be building. McConaughey’s momentum has disappeared before, and yet, that seems unlikely this time around; he’s clearly learned from the vision quest of a career he’s had; his taste in roles over the last two years has been impeccable. Even though Nolan’s movies aren’t about Nolan’s actors, it seems likely that Interstellar might be the crowning achievement of McConaughey’s coup d’état. But it’ll be Killer Joe and True Detective—not to mention Magic Mike and Mud and magnificent little turns in Bernie and The Wolf of Wall Street—that form the meat of McConaughey’s resume as America’s Coolest Dude.

Kevin Lincoln
Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a writer living in Los Angeles. He also contributes to The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Grantland.

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