Movie Review: “Gold”

Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll
Stephen Gaghan

Former Hollywood golden boy Stephen Gaghan was at the top of his game when he seemingly vanished from the industry following 2005’s “Syriana,” so it’s easy to see why his latest project (which he directed but didn’t write) has been met with guarded enthusiasm. After actually watching the film, however, it’s not surprising that it was shut out of this year’s awards race. Although the movie is loosely based on incredible true events and features a committed performance from Matthew McConaughey, “Gold” fails to capitalize on its intriguing premise. The potential was certainly there, but despite the similarities to other recent films about greed and the American Dream like “The Big Short” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Gaghan’s sophomore effort lacks the energy and wit that made those movies so enjoyable.

The film opens in 1981 with Reno-based prospector Kenny Wells (McConaughey) working for his family’s successful mining company. Fast-forward seven years later and the business has fallen on hard times due to a crumbling economy and the death of Kenny’s father. He’s barely keeping the company afloat, working out of a bar to save on expenses. But just when it seems like Kenny has finally hit rock bottom, he has a dream about discovering gold in the uncharted jungles of Indonesia and decides to make one last gamble, pawning his jewelry and jetting off to Southeast Asia in order to convince geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez) – who has a theory about untapped mineral reserves in the country – to partner with him. Though they initially have zero luck finding anything, the pair eventually strikes gold in a big way, attracting the attention of Wall Street banker Brian Woolf (Corey Stoll). But as everyone fights to get a piece of Kenny and Michael’s success, the whole thing threatens to come crashing down around them.

McConaughey looks every bit the part as the balding, potbellied, snaggletoothed has-been, but his performance is much more than the physical transformation that he’s undergone. He carries the film every step of the way, exuding his trademark charisma – sometimes it’s as simple as a half-cocked smile or a glint in his eye – to turn Kenny into the kind of loveable loser that you can’t help but admire. Ramírez and Bryce Dallas Howard (as Kenny’s devoted girlfriend Kay) don’t have as much to work with, but they’re both good in their respective roles, and the same can be said for the treasure trove of character actors (like Bruce Greenwood, Craig T. Nelson, Stacy Keach and Bill Camp) who pop up along the way. Unfortunately, Gaghan is unable to provide McConaughey’s wonderfully realized protagonist with the story that he deserves.

Though Patrick Massett and John Zinman’s screenplay is inspired by the 1997 Bre-X mining scandal, the decision to change the names, setting and time period makes you wonder how much of what happens in “Gold” is true. Of course, this is the type of fact-based film that probably would have benefited from taking more dramatic license with the material, because some of the sensational events that occur (including one character’s supposed death) are presented so matter-of-factly that it sucks the fun out of the movie. There’s nothing ordinary about the circumstances surrounding Kenny’s rise and fall, and yet Gaghan treats it like every other rags-to-riches story.

The narration/framing device with Toby Kebbell’s FBI agent is also handled really clumsily, while the technical minutiae (both on the mining and financial side) is almost completely glossed over. Gaghan may not have been heavily involved in the script process (though it’s hard to imagine the Oscar-winning writer didn’t at least polish it), but by failing to address these problems, he’s just as much to blame. Nevertheless, McConaughey is such a compelling presence, fervently chain-smoking and guzzling booze throughout the course of the film, that “Gold” just about gets by on his performance alone.