There’s never a point in Gold, the latest from Matthew McConaughey and director Stephen Gaghan (Traffic), where you don’t know how things are going to turn out. From the early going, the film sets itself up as an archetypal “rise and fall” cautionary tale.
That’s not to say it’s not well constructed or executed. In fact, Gold is an entertaining film, with a compelling, committed performance from McConaughey at its heart.
But the familiarity of the story arc takes something away from the film’s lasting dramatic impact. It’s just a lesson we’ve been taught before in more or less this same way.
Given that, audiences are more likely to be talking about McConaughey’s weight gain for the role rather than the film’s message once the credits roll.
What’s it about?
Based loosely on true events, Gold tells the story of Kenny Wells, a third-generation mining prospector who lives by the same desire to strike it big that drove his father and grandfather.
In 1988, Wells’ fortunes have reached an all-time low. He’s operating the family business out of a bar, his once-reliable financial backers now hesitant to underwrite more land buys for scant returns on investment.
All isn’t terrible for Wells, however. His staff remains fiercely loyal, and his loving, patient girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) remains steadfast in her support.
With the last of his finances, Wells turns to maverick geologist Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), who built his reputation on a massive copper find in Indonesia years before and then watched that reputation crumble as his subsequent ventures failed to yield similar results.
Both at the ends of their respective ropes, the two partner in order to investigate one last Indonesian site Acosta believes will yield a “mother lode.” With local workers toiling beside them in the mud, the two work for months through rains, mudslides, and malaria, once again with little to show for it.
Then one morning, everything changes. Analysis of core samples the miners pulled from deep in the ground reveal an epic gold find, the kind potentially worth billions.
Validated at last, Wells returns to Reno a hero. Once the news of his find breaks, he finds himself courted by all manner of bankers, politicians, and speculators all eager to cash in.
At last, Kenny Wells finds himself winning, and he revels in his triumph. He knew it was out there, and he was right.
Or was he?
McConaughey larger than life (literally)
At the heart of Gold lies the charismatic, complicated character Kenny Wells. What makes him so interesting is that it’s not greed that drives him, as it might others like him.
Pride and belief drive Kenny Wells. Pride in the accomplishments of his fathers, belief in his own instincts and his eventual place among the world’s giants of success — these are what keep the fires going within Wells, and more still. He’s also aware of others’ belief in him, and he strives to be worthy of that belief, to reward their loyalty and faith.
What results is a man who lives every day as large as his expectations for success. Some see him as magnanimous and inspiring in his seemingly boundless energy and belief. Others just dismiss him as crazy and small-time, a hopeless dreamer. What they might agree on is that the man is genuine.
To bring Kenny Wells to life, Matthew McConaughey reportedly gained 40 pounds on a diet of cheeseburgers, beer and milkshakes. Makeup effects thin his hairline, and wardrobe emphasizes the gut of a man who eats, drinks, and loves large and in the moment.
Arguably, those physical trappings may prove too distracting for some audiences. But combined with McConaughey’s innate charm and almost maniac energy, they help yield a very convincing character study, yet another for the talented actor’s resumé.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one …
But for all the strength of McConaughey’s work here, Gold still feels too familiar, too “we’ve heard this story before.”
It’s a shame, because this isn’t the case of a solitary strong performance trapped within a bad film. Edgar Ramirez and Bryce Dallas Howard each turn in solid performances which also complement McConaughey’s efforts. Supporting cast members Craig T. Nelson, Stacy Keach, and Bruce Greenwood all provide memorable turns, as well.
Behind the camera, Stephen Gaghan and cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) deliver visuals that make the scientific complexities of modern mining palatable, while realistically immersing audiences in jungles both natural and urban. It’s all put together with thought and care to bring the best out of the performers, and at times, it works.
But the script is just too conventional. The story’s plot beats are just a little too predictable for Gold to transcend its genre trappings and result in something great. It also tends to drag in its final act, with each successive scene feeling like it will be the last, only to yield to another narrative beat of questionable importance.
For fans of based-on-true-events dramas, Gold is a solid entertainment choice. In fact, it may be worth seeing for McConaughey’s work alone.
But it’s not necessarily a film that needs to be seen in theaters. It may prove just as compelling as a rental or digital download down the road. There are no stunning visual effects or sound editing that require the movie theater experience here.
Just don’t expect anything truly revolutionary, either in the material or the film’s approach to it.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, and Bryce Dallas Howard. Directed by Stephen Gaghan.
Running Time: 161 minutes
Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.