On September 20, Zach Galifianakis’s web series Between Two Ferns finally makes the jump to the big screen (or, at least, Netflix). The recently released trailer features Matthew McConaughey being delivered from one of Galifianakis’s typically awkward interviews by a burst pipe that leaves him, as an angry Will Ferrell explains, “momentarily dead.”
This is an unusual reprieve for the beloved actor, who’s spent a decent chunk of his filmography dying. In fact, according to the Cinemorgue database, McConaughey has been fake-killed, briefly or otherwise, more than a dozen times—and while those aren’t, say, Sean Bean numbers, they’re impressive for a guy whose catchphrase is “Just keep livin’.” With the caveat that this will obviously be spoiler-heavy, let’s revisit some of McConaughey’s most memorable on-screen deaths, so that we may gird ourselves for when his day comes. Again.
Unsolved Mysteries (1992)
Thanks for reading Texas Monthly
A young McConaughey kicked off his career with a role that established two of his future hallmarks: being shirtless and dying. McConaughey made his screen acting debut in a 1992 episode of Unsolved Mysteries, donning a pair of tiny denim cutoffs to play 1978 murder victim Larry Dickens. He was mowing his mother’s lawn in Pasadena when the alleged serial killer Edward Harold Bell pulled up in his truck and menaced a group of children while naked from the waist down. After Dickens grabbed Bell’s keys to waylay him until police arrived, Bell shot Dickens several times while he was held in his mother’s arms—a horrific scene, and McConaughey gives the reenactment his dramatic all. Fortunately, as McConaughey would later explain to IMDb, his first fake death wasn’t in vain: Bell was arrested shortly after the episode aired, by a viewer who saw McConaughey’s memorable performance and then tipped off police. And with that, a star was born (to die).
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
Shot around Bastrop and Pflugerville with a cast of Austin unknowns—then shelved for two years when a couple of them suddenly became huge stars—1995’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation found McConaughey playing a lunatic tow truck driver with a mechanical leg who terrorizes Renee Zellweger after she stumbles into the backwoods lair of his chainsaw-wielding little brother, Leatherface. Kim Henkel’s gonzo sequel throws a lot into his no-budget revamp of the Texas Chainsaw mythology, including subplots about Illuminati and Leatherface grappling with his sexuality. Even those who have seen it could be forgiven for not remembering McConaughey’s almost-offhand death, when his sadistic Vilmer is finally clipped by a mysterious airplane that appears out of nowhere, leaving Leatherface—and the audience—to howl in bewilderment.
Scorpion Spring (1995)
Released amid the mid-nineties boom of B-movie potboilers that mimicked Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez without the postmodernism or panache, Brian Cox’s Scorpion Spring finds Matthew McConaughey portraying a Mexican drug lord named “El Rojo.” Enough said, really—especially as the particulars of how Alfred Molina, playing a French actor, and Esai Morales’s greaser drug dealer come to find El Rojo are both too complex and contrived to fully recount here. Suffice it to say, McConaughey’s performance is largely limited to waving a pistol around and growling awful lines like, “Where are my kilos, comprende?” until Morales puts a bullet in his head. For Dead McConaughey completists only.
Reign of Fire (2002)
Rob Bowman’s post-apocalyptic fantasy Reign of Fire bears the sooty, gray-and-black palette so common to the early aughts, but the film gets a much-needed pop of color thanks to McConaughey. As Denton Van Zan, leader of the dragon-slaying militia the Kentucky Irregulars, McConaughey resembles a Frank Frazetta character as drawn for the nu-metal age. He bites into the role of the bald, scraggly-bearded badass with a similarly campy abandon. This definitely includes his death, which will probably forever hold the title of McConaughey’s most memorable: Van Zan literally goes down swinging, grabbing an axe and launching himself toward an approaching dragon with a guttural yell, only to be eaten in midair. And somehow it would be another twelve years before McConaughey won an Oscar.
The Paperboy (2012)
Before it was even released, Lee Daniels’s soft-core, Southern-fried steamer The Paperboy became famous as “the movie where Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron”—a legacy that unfairly overshadows many other facts about it. Compared with that infamous scene, it’s almost dully provincial watching John Cusack, playing a racist gator wrassler named “Hillary,” slash McConaughey’s throat open with a machete, while Efron looks on in horror. McConaughey’s investigative reporter character, Ward Jansen, also loses an eye long before he meets his ignoble end, part of a litany of abuse the film doles out on both Ward and the audience. By the time the curtain finally falls, McConaughey’s death feels almost like a mercy killing.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Perhaps we’re cheating by including an animated film, but there’s no denying that the human-insect hybrid Beetle is Matthew McConaughey through and through. The actor lent his unmistakable voice and oddball energy to Laika’s stop-motion fantasy Kubo and the Two Strings, reportedly even throwing down an “inhuman” set of push-ups in the booth to sound properly drained in one scene. Because it’s so inextricably him, it hurts all the more when Beetle is stabbed to death by Rooney Mara’s Washi—a death that ranks among the most shocking in McConaughey’s catalog, especially given that Kubo is ostensibly a kids’ movie.
The Dark Tower (2017)
Adapting Stephen King’s sprawling Dark Tower series to film was never going to be easy, and the evidence is right there in Nikolaj Arcel’s attempt, which manages to drain every ounce of wonder from a story about trans-dimensional cowboys. Somehow it even squanders the can’t-miss proposition of Matthew McConaughey playing a cocky, demonic sorcerer who can catch bullets, toss great balls of fire, and manipulate time and space, like Neo by way of Criss Angel. Given all those disappointments, it’s only fitting that McConaughey’s Man in Black meets his end rather anticlimactically, caught off guard by Idris Elba’s gunslinger firing a CGI-enabled trick shot. Other than the technicality afforded by Between Two Ferns, this is, regrettably, McConaughey’s most recent on-screen death. But given his history, it surely won’t be the last.