Gold, the metal that currently fetches about $1,200 an ounce, apparently has the power to make men delirious. The delirium is not about greed, even if it can make them wealthy: instead, the prospect of gold tantalizes the mind to the point where reason and accountability are secondary concerns. Directed by Stephen Gaghan, an accomplished screenwriter, Gold suffers from a minor identity crisis. It can’t decide whether it wants to be a parable, a crime drama, or an old-fashioned adventure. The latter genre is the most successful, so for a while, anyway, Gold tantalizes us like its shiny namesake.
A title card explain the film is “inspired by true events,” which nowadays means that a screenwriter read an article once and changed the story just enough so they would not need to be intellectual property rights. Matthew McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a miner in the 1980s who does not bear a passing resemblance to David Walsh, the real man on which he’s based. In classic Hollywood fashion, McConaughey changes his appearance for the role: he puts on weight, gets false teeth, and a bald wig. Uncouth and free-spirited, Wells has a flash of inspiration after a series of failures: he goes to Indonesia, meets up with the brilliant geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), and together they search for an untapped gold mine. All early indications say they strike gold, so Wall Street suits soon want a piece of the pie.
Gaghan, along with screenwriters Patrick Massett and John Zinman, make a crucial departure from the “rags/riches/rags” films that were popularized by John Huston, Martin Scorsese, and countless other American filmmakers. A drinking problem and bad language notwithstanding, Wells is essentially an honest, decent man. He sticks by his girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard), and never tries to screw over his investors or business partners. The lengthy Indonesia section is a highlight: Gaghan filmed on set in Thailand, and the lush jungle brings to mind Werner Herzog films—particularly since Wells veers toward becoming a Herzogian hero. The rain is relentless, as is McConaughey’s intensely physical performance. If nothing else, Gold offers some insight into the nuts and bolts business of modern mining.
That sense of adventure disappears once Wells rises through the ranks of business world, eventually winning trade organization awards and opening the New York Stock Exchange. These scenes may have great soundtrack choices—Pixies, Joy Division, and New Order all make appearances—yet their narrative thrust is a foregone conclusion. The screenplay has some surprises, including how it handles the voice over, but these tonal shifts betray the simple pleasures of adventure, or the thrill of discovery. The middle ground between Indiana Jones and Wall Street are not an evocative mix. Gaghan returns to the jungle, with wide shots of impenetrable green forests, although all the action is decidedly urban for the film’s second half.
One additional surprising thing about Gold is its cast of recognizable character actors. Stacy Keach, Bill Camp, Corey Stoll, and Craig T. Nelson all have memorable appearance. You may not recognize all those names, but you’ll find yourself saying, “Hey, it’s that guy!” at least once. They add credibility to the screenplay, which sometimes threads the needle between character nuance and necessary exposition. McConaughey is somehow in almost every scene, with more energy and wit than a character who drinks that much (he must go through at least a dozen bottles of brown liquor). The approach to the material is half-serious, half-kidding, a choice that elevates the shamelessly entertaining scenes and dampens the many moments Wells spirals into self-destruction.
Wells’ primary guiding principle is the purity of his chosen field. His father and his father’s father were miners, so he will sacrifice millions for the glory of his name. Another consequence of this principle is a distrust of anyone who does not toil at the land itself. Sometimes Wells seems like a fool, while in others he seems like a purist. But for its feature-length identity crisis and inability to find a tone, Gold reaches an ending that betrays Wells’ character. It’s an elegant, tone-deaf ending that violates Wells’ deep-seated notion of what gold does to the mind. As for the minds of its audience, Gold ultimately leaves us craving something better.
Gold opens tomorrow in theaters everywhere.