Ten years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a director of Steven Soderbergh's caliber threatening to burn his Academy card if McConaughey didn't get an Oscar nomination (neither happened in the end, but if you somehow missed Magic Mike, you should still see him in Soderbergh's surprisingly good dance dramedy as the gloriously jacked-up and funny Dallas, the G-stringed and leather-vested don of male strippers). These days, awards talk follows McConaughey wherever he goes—starting with his dark, unsettling turn as a sadistic cop in William Friedkin's NC-17 Killer Joe and including Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, in which he stars opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, and this month's moody coming-of-age drama Mud, in which he plays the title character, a lovesick fugitive who charms two kids into helping him get a boat out of a tree to save his girl (Reese Witherspoon) from some baddies.

Mud is a mangy dreamer and drifter and emotional grifter, the kind of doomed tragicomic fuckup you root for even though you know you shouldn't. Brimming with half-baked mysticism, he's got a tattoo on his arm of the snake that nearly killed him. One more bite, he tells the boys, and nothing can save him.

McConaughey has been snakebitten himself. The alluring serpent that's haunted him is the romantic comedy, and it almost snuffed out his career even as it made him loads of money. After cruising into fame as the instantly iconic Wooderson in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, McConaughey settled into his long likable-cad period in easy-to-watch, hard-to-distinguish profitable throwaways like The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and Failure to Launch. There are rules about these things, and the rules state that in America we will reward you handsomely for your handsomeness, but if you want our respect, you're going to have to show us something new. You're going to have to poke a little fun at your own beefcakeness (see: Magic Mike), and you're going to have to go dark, very dark—to the point of, say, forcing a battered Gina Gershon to fellate a piece of fried chicken stuck between your legs (as he does in Killer Joe).

You wouldn't call it a comeback, exactly. McConaughey's always been a bankable draw, and nobody doubted his talent. He never wandered so far from our consciousness that he'd need to be pulled back in, and he never really had a flameout to come back from.

"I never said, 'Oh, I want to go do darker or edgier stuff,'" McConaughey says. "I just said, 'I'm going to take some time off. I have to take care of my family right now. We've got the means in the bank account, we've got a roof over our head, we're gonna eat well, we're fine. So let's take some introspective time.' It wasn't a mini-retirement. It was just that I wanted to listen to myself and be a bit more discerning."

Critics have been giving McConaughey a lot of love recently—even for roles in movies that failed to get raves (The Paperboy) or wide distribution (Richard Linklater's Bernie). As the buzz was spreading about Mud's reception at Sundance and about the New York Film Critics Circle best supporting actor award for his roles in Bernie and Magic Mike, it was clear that a major rethinking of the McConaughey stature was under way, with observers from the world over confirming the newsworthiness of it all: "From himbo to highbrow"—The Guardian (U.K.); "Matthew McConaughey, le come-back de l'année"—TF1 News (France); "the McConaissance," said McConaughey himself on HuffPo, taking ownership of a recent coinage.

What's remarkable about the favorable reappraisal of his acting chops is that it didn't rely on his being revived by some director with a vision for an undervalued property. The changes in his career are born of a conscious decision he made to pursue what turns him on.

"I enjoyed what I was doing," McConaughey says, "but I felt like I did it last time and I can do it again tomorrow. I just wanted to shake in my boots a little bit. I want to go deal with some real consequence in films. I remember writing this down: 'I want to be able to hang my hat on the humanity of the character every day.'"