Matthew McConaughey's Power of Transformation in 'True Detective'

Matthew McConaughey is an attractive man—the sexiest man alive even—and he has perhaps never used his handsomeness to greater effect than in HBO's new show True Detective

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Matthew McConaughey is an attractive man—the sexiest man alive even—and he has perhaps never used his handsomeness to greater effect than in HBO's new show True Detective.

The new, wonderful, devastatingly creepy HBO show tells the story of two detectives, Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), over an extended timeline. In the first three episodes the show jumps back and forth between the 1990s, when Cohle and Hart are investigating a disturbing  murder, and the present day, when the two are telling the story of that murder to two other investigators.

McConaughey, in a way, is an actor who's always kept an element of himself in every part he plays. He has that voice—that Dazed and Confused "alright alright alright" drawl; the little whistle that comes at the end of some his words—that will stay with him no matter who he is embodying. Still, McConaughey's mid-career transformation has had a lot to do with how we perceive his looks. In Magic Mike, he made his buffness part of the parody. Sure, he was attractive in that movie, but he was also, purposefully, deeply silly. In Mud he transformed himself into a Boo Radley figure, his tooth chipped and his face coated in a layer of grime. For Dallas Buyers Club, the role that could win him an Oscar if Liza Minnelli has anything to say about it, he made himself unfathomably skinny and sickly in the role of an AIDS patient.

For half of True Detective, McConaughey has undergone another physical transformation. As he sits in a room, recounting everything that happened after a dead woman was found in a sugar cane field—naked, kneeling, and wearing a crown of antlers—he looks like a guy you might find milling around a bar, lonely and looking for trouble. He acts like someone you should fear, his hair long and stringy as he rips into beer cans with a long knife. He's given himself jowls for this part of the show, and you're drawn to look at that part of his face because of the dirt-colored mustache he wears. But then, when the action of the show jumps to the past, McConaughey is nearly pristine. He has a boyish look to him, with his neatly cut hair, and chiseled bone structure. His looks seem to imply an innocence to him, and that's what's nearly miraculous about this performance. This is a man who is not naive. His young daughter died, and his marriage subsequently fell apart. He hallucinates and takes quaaludes. He lives by himself, alongside volumes about murder. He's a pessimist who keeps a crucifix on his wall even though he doesn't believe in religion. He's acutely aware of man's basest instincts. It would all be clichéd if McConaughey didn't sell it so well, and part of why we're buying it has to do with his looks. He uses them, their untouched quality, to draw us in, even as we know we shouldn't be getting to close to him. 

That's not to say that Harrelson isn't doing superb work here as well. His character is simply less obscure. He's convinced he's a good man even though he's doing ostensibly bad things—like cheating on his wife—whereas Cohle is convinced he's a bad man, even as we suspect he might ultimately be good.

The show on a whole moves slowly—interspersing revelations about the central mystery—with postulations about man's place in the world. What keeps you enthralled are its layers of unknowns. Why are Cohle and Hart being interviewed in the present? Who is/are the murderer/s? Director Cary Fukunaga casts a paleness over all of his shots of Louisiana vistas. This is not a joyous magical realist portion of the South like what viewers found in Beasts of the Southern Wild or even, to some extent, Mud. At times there feels like there are dark spirits at work in True Detective, but the show is seeped in the crumminess of its landscape. You may feel like you want to take a shower after watching.

Still, the main reason to watch is McConaughey. His character's constant preaching about human nature can feel redundant at times, but McConaughey keeps drawing you in, closer and closer. in a way that you're positive is unhealthy. True Detective may be his best work.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.