In the waning days of the winter season in March 2011, the Matthew McConaughey star vehicle The Lincoln Lawyer was released into theaters and opened with a credits sequence featuring a Lincoln Town Car traveling through the sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles. The end-of-winter release date and the bright LA streets kicked off a metaphorical heatwave for McConaughey’s career that led to blockbuster hits, R-rated gems, and a Best Actor Oscar at the 2014 Academy Awards.
After stumbling a bit in the films Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Surfer Dude, McConaughey surprised viewers by fully inhabiting the role of Michael “Mickey” Haller, a Defense Attorney (who never gets car sick) whose office is a Lincoln Town Car driven by a former client named Earl (Laurence Mason). Adapted from the 2005 book by Michael Connelly, the R-rated film collected $80 million worldwide on a $40 million budget and was adored by critics and audiences who declared it guilty of being an excellent courtroom thriller. McConaughey is in nearly every second of the Brad Furman-directed film, and the fly-on-the-wall camerawork full of pans and zooms by cinematographer Lukas Ettlin follows him around the streets of LA as he works on a high-profile case involving a rich maniac named Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe).
Later in 2011, the Richard Linklater-directed Bernie and William Freidkin-directed Killer Joe erased the bad taste of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and catapulted Failure to Launch out of people’s memories, ushering in the “McConaissance.” McConaughey followed these up with The Paperboy, Mud, Magic Mike, Dallas Buyers Club (which won him the aforementioned Oscar), The Wolf of Wall Street, True Detective, and the $700 million-grossing worldwide blockbuster Interstellar. In other words, McConaughey was doing “alright, alright, alright,” as everything he touched turned to gold (well, except for Gold, which, after Fool’s Gold and Sahara, proved he should avoid treasure hunting).
Here’s five reasons why The Lincoln Lawyer was the perfect film to put McConaughey on the expressway to the McConaissance.
(Photo by ©Lionsgate courtesy Everett Collection)
While many consider McConaughey’s breakthrough performance in Dazed and Confused to be his launching pad, it was the 1996 film A Time to Kill that pushed his career into orbit. The John Grisham book adaptation featured McConaughey as a defense attorney for Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), a man who murdered his daughter’s rapists and injured a cop in the process. The film killed it at the box office, bringing in $152 million worldwide, and McConaughey was awarded the “Most Promising Actor” distinction from the Chicago Film Critics Association. A year later, McConaughey starred in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, which was based on the true story and 1987 book Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy. McConaughey once again played an attorney, this time defending a group of Africans who took control of the slave ship bound for the Americas that they were imprisoned on. Both films were Fresh successes, and proved he could excel in courtroom dramas.
After a decade of romantic comedies and Reign of Fire — which is awesome, by the way; McConaughey is swallowed whole by a dragon — The Lincoln Lawyer and Bernie saw his return to the courtroom and reminded everyone of his rakish charm and acting prowess. Mickey is in almost every frame of The Lincoln Lawyer, and you can tell McConaughey loves playing the character. Whether it’s his off-the-charts chemistry with Marisa Tomei or the way he sucks the life out of Ted Minton (Josh Lucas), the overmatched state’s attorney, McConaughey thrives in the slimy-yet-likable role. When Earl asks Mickey if he’ll still have a job after Mickey gets his license back (he lost it due to a DUI), Mickey says he’s already had it for three months; the two smile, say nothing, and continue on with their day. It’s at this exact moment you realize you actually kind of like Mickey, the divorced alcoholic attorney hated by so many because he’s so good. After 10 years, this scene still hits us every time.
If you saw Dazed and Confused as a teenager, McConaughey’s character Wooderson may have come across like a mythical figure. In hindsight, though, it probably dawned on you that Wooderson is an older dude who kind of creeps on high school girls, and you probably wouldn’t want him hanging out with your children or their friends. That’s the magic of McConaughey: he can find the charm in people you’d probably want nothing to do with otherwise. While he certainly earned his share of fans in rom-coms like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and The Wedding Planner, many forget he got his start playing sleazy or mysterious figures in movies like Dazed and Confused, Lone Star, and Frailty.
McConaughey is at his best in films like Killer Joe, Magic Mike, and The Gentleman, when he can embody a square-jawed menace. His speech about the laws of the jungle in The Gentlemen and every second of his Killer Joe screentime are laced with unpredictable anger and a “don’t come at me” vibe that had been lost in movies like Surfer, Dude. In The Lincoln Lawyer, he’s a bad dad and a terrible husband, and he’s responsible for destroying an innocent man’s life (Michael Peña) after he refused to listen and fight for him. However, despite these glaring flaws, he’s still exceedingly likable, and he still possesses something of a moral compass. When Mickey visits Peña’s character to confirm a suspicion, you see in the course of just a couple minutes that McConaughey is nervous, shaken, and desperate as he tries to right a prior wrong.
Reviews for The Lincoln Lawyer use phrases like “very refreshing,” “never-better,” and “the only actor in Hollywood who can swagger while sitting down.” This performance hit the reset button for McConaughey, who admitted in an interview with Cigar Afficionado magazine (of course) that the so-called McConaissance was more a case of him saying “f*** the bucks” and taking roles that “scared” him after a decade of easy, lucrative rom-coms. While he enjoyed giving audiences “90-minute breezy romantic getaways,” he wanted to be an actor again, “going as deep as you can in a role,” and The Lincoln Lawyer marks the beginning of that journey.
(Photo by Everett Collection)
It’s also fitting that The Lincoln Lawyer marked Matthew McConaughey’s comeback because the Tomatometer scores in his filmography reveal an interesting trend. His R-rated films boast a Fresh 60.2% average, whereas his PG-13 films sit at a Rotten 40.9% average. In other words, he has thrived in more adult-oriented fare, as 14 of his 15 best-reviewed films are rated R (Kubo and the Two Strings is the lone exception). McConaughey won his Oscar for the Dallas Buyers Club, and most recently, The Gentleman collected a 75% Tomatomometer and an 84% Audience Score en route to earning $115 million worldwide. Basically R = McC glory — with the exception of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Tiptoes, and Surfer, Dude, but even those three have cult followings of their own.
Though it was a television program, the HBO crime drama True Detective sported a similar TV-MA rating, which is appropriate for a show that features brutal murder, copious profanity, and a sense of dread that weighs on you like a Lincoln Town Car. McConaughey’s performance in the first season of the series earned him Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for his turn as “Rust” Kohle, a Lone Star-swigging detective who goes through super dark times while hunting for a serial killer.
Now, his PG-13 films have made much more money at the box office — Interstellar (that crying scene…) and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days in particular were giant hits. But movies like Mud, Killer Joe (which actually received an NC-17 rating), and Magic Mike were low-budget marvels that found him hitting new gears and allowed him to work with people like Steven Soderbergh and Jeff Nichols. Yes, 2019’s famously panned Serenity is also rated R, but it’s insane, and we love that it exists — because it’s insane.
What’s wild is that between 2003 and 2011, McConaughey’s only Fresh film was Tropic Thunder, the R-rated comedy epic that saw him dueling with Tom Cruise and throwing TiVos in the air to stop deadly rockets. The role is a minor one, but Rick Peck, Hollywood Agent, is another cocky creation who is just as dedicated as Mickey Haller is to his clients.
(Photo by ©STX Films, Jim Bridges/©Roadside Attractions, Saeed Adyani/©Lionsgate)
Bear with us here: Between Mud, The Gentlemen, The Beach Bum, The Wolf of Wall Street, Frailty, and The Lincoln Lawyer, R-rated movies in which McConaughey’s character’s first or last name begins with an “M” have a 76.5% Tomatometer average. This is well above the 60.2% average of his R-rated films in general. During the McConaissance, five of his best films have him named Mud, Mickey, Moondog, Michael, and Mark. Is this mere coincidence, or is there some other cosmic force at work?
Two of McConaughey’s most underrated performances are in The Beach Bum and Frailty (which isn’t part of the McConaissance, but it’s legit). In The Beach Bum, Harmony Korine’s follow-up to Spring Breakers, he returned to Florida and cast McConaughey as a pleasure-loving author who gets entangled in shenanigans that involve great white sharks, cannabis, and explosions. Moondog is a peculiar entity who feels like an alternate version of McConaughey himself from a different timeline. The film moves at a leisurely pace, and it’s kept together by a dedicated McConaughey who knows he’s in a singular role of a lifetime. In Frailty, the Bill Paxton-directed horror film, McConaughey plays a guilt-ridden man named Adam/Fenton Meiks who believes he is on a mission from God to eliminate demons that walk among the living. He also tells excellent stories about past murders and family trauma, which he would do again in True Detective.
(Photo by Saeed Adyani/©Lionsgate courtesy Everett Collection)
While The Lincoln Lawyer may feature McConaughey in every scene, it helps that he’s surrounded by a supporting cast that’s deeper than the bench of the 2002-2003 San Antonio Spurs. It’s a treat watching John Leguizamo, Marissa Tomei, Josh Lucas, Laurence Mason, Michael Peña, William H. Macy, Shea Whigham, Frances Fisher, Ryan Phillipe, and Bryan Cranston act against McConaughey. It feels like their energy made him raise his game, and you can see it on the screen.
His chemistry with Tomei’s Maggie, Mickey’s ex-wife, is palpable, and Michael Peña gives him pure gold to work with as an innocent man doomed to decades in prison. It also helps that Ryan Phillipe oozes menace and gives viewers a villain who desperately needs to be found guilty. The ensemble is instrumental to the success of the film; he’s surrounded by an embarrassment of riches, which makes the film infinitely rewatchable.
That’s another reason why McConaughey has flourished in the decade since The Lincoln Lawyer’s release: Between Interstellar, The Wolf of Wall Street, Mud, Dallas Buyers Club (Jared Leto also won an Oscar for this film), Bernie, and Magic Mike, he’s been surrounded by A-listers doing A+ work. It’s part of the conscious decision he made back in 2011 to seek out challenging, rewarding material and work with talented individuals at the top of their game, and it reflects his newfound commitment to his craft. Would the McConaissance have still happened if he didn’t choose to star in The Lincoln Lawyer? Maybe, probably, but thanks to a number of factors — both obvious and esoteric — there couldn’t have been a more appropriate vehicle. Also, we like to imagine it led to this.
The Lincoln Lawyer was released in theaters on March 18, 2011.