7 out of 10
Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wells
Directed by Stephen Gaghan
Gold may be very loosely based on real events (mostly the Bre-X scandal in the 1990s), but it’s also telling a story almost as old as cinema itself – how greed changes and corrupts even those with the best intentions (or even those without). We’ve seen it before in classics like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre all the way up to The Wolf of Wall Street. The audience may find themselves rooting for characters who don’t deserve it just to watch the money move. Everyone fantasizes about the next get-rich-quick scheme, getting the most with the minimal effort, but while Kenny Wells (Mathew McConaughey) is willing to work a little for a place at the table, he’s not willing to work too hard. His father scratched a living as a prospector, founding a mining company that was moderately successful, but while Kenny wants to keep the company going, he’s also interested in finding the easy score.
Enter fellow prospector Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), who has a theory that the ground in Indonesia is ripe for a gold strike due to certain geological conditions. Wells believes him, and, inspired by a dream, seeks out Acosta to make good on his concept. After several weeks, Acosta tells a feverish-with-malaria Wells that they are successful – in fact, the dig in Indonesia may be the richest strike of gold ever recorded. Wells is swarmed by other companies, and even the government of Indonesia, to take a piece of the profits. But Wells, who has a drinking problem and probably isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, is overwhelmed, and becomes consumed by pride and avarice.
Gold is one of those movies that rewards audiences who stick with it, especially since its first half hour is so disjointed and difficult to follow. There is so much geology speak in the early minutes of the film that it is difficult to understand just what exactly Wells does. It doesn’t help that McConaughey fills his performance with idiosyncrasies and quirks, turning the knob to 10 when an 8 would have sufficed. We are thrown into the deep end of modern prospecting, where it simply isn’t about digging into the earth for gold anymore, but a logistical and economic nightmare just to break ground. The film doesn’t really find its footing until after the gold strike, when companies begin to line up to take part in Wells’ and Acosta’s success, and the boardroom maneuverings and wheeling and dealing that takes place begins to take its toll on Wells and his relationship with Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard).
Matthew McConaughey plays Kenny Wells as a white trash mogul who, with his cheap suits and bad haircut, is simply outmatched by more successful businessmen. But he has a wily, clever streak in him that causes people like Brian Wolff (Corey Stoll) to underestimate him. McConaughey is willing to deglamorize himself for the part, and I admire how pathetic McConaughey makes Kenny Wells. Bryce Dallas Howard as Kay shares Kenny’s down-to-earth lifestyle and philosophy, but Wells’ mad scramble to the bottom challenges Kay’s resolve and when Wells proves a leaky vessel for Kay to put her trust in, Kay becomes tested in unexpected ways.
Audiences will likely see where this story is headed a mile off, but they will likely stick with it due to McConaughey’s performance, where he admittedly seems to be having a ball playing this slightly unhinged but tenacious character. Edgar Ramirez’s work is by necessity quieter, but he’s also playing a bit of a shell game, not laying too many cards on the table, and Ramirez is quite good in a less assuming role. The most striking aspect of Gold is Robert Elswit’s cinematography, where he takes us from the seedy bars of Carson City, Nevada, to the elegance of the jungles of Indonesia, to the sterile but formidable boardrooms of corporate America.
Director Stephen Gaghan gets good performances out of his cast, but for a film that covers a lot of ground, the scope of Gold feels smaller than it should. The film works best when we watch these giant corporations try to outmaneuver Wells, and only through the tenacity of his character is he able to dodge them. There are pieces of a larger message about corporate greed and the pitfalls of unbridled capitalism, but because McConaughey plays Wells as a bit of a goofball, these themes are mostly glossed over in favor of watching McConaughey be a bit too broad for the material. Still, Gold works more often than not, and the twists of the third act lift the film up in unexpected and oddly touching ways. Kenny Wells may be a screw-up who fell out of failure into success, but we can admire Kenny’s will to succeed. There is an entrepreneurial zest and spirit to Kenny’s struggles, which anyone who has ever had dreams of wealth and success can recognize.