Stephen Gaghan‘s GOLD was originally going to be released a little earlier, possibly being an awards contender, but advance reviews were rather lukewarm. The Weinstein Company decided to give it a late-January slot instead. Matthew McConaughey takes the lead in a less-than-glamorous way, with a stringy-haired bald head and a few extra pounds, he’s a far cry from his normal leading man appearance. The film is inspired by a true story… but we all know that doesn’t always mean it all really happened.
The tale opens in the early 1980s with Kenny Wells (McConaughey), a man living in the shadow of his industrial-minded father (played briefly by Craig T. Nelson). Kenny attempts to continue his family’s legacy, but several years after his dad passes he finds his crew working the phones out of a bar rather than an office, implying the drink sales are what’s keeping a roof over their heads. One day he gets an idea to partner with a geologist named Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), and they seek out a spot in the Indonesian jungle in hopes of finding fame and fortune. After some failed attempts, and Kenny nearly dying of malaria, they strike gold for real which begins an empire for Wells back home. Before long the phones are ringing off the hook, investors come calling, and partnerships are formed. Meanwhile Kenny’s personal life with wife Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) becomes strained, and very soon he finds himself struggling to keep control of his unexpected wealth.
It’s easy to see why GOLD has already received some comparisons to movies like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET or BLOW, but unlike those stories, this is about a man who isn’t setting out to do something illegal at all. Wells does what he does for one reason, to keep his family legacy strong and support his employees, it’s more of the folks along the way in his journey that are the troublemakers and ones with less-than-honorable motives. So as an audience, we’re faced with the odd task of rooting for a guy who is physically off-putting (or at least he’s meant to be), but has the best of intentions. Matthew McConaughey sells the hero of the story as a sort of hapless idiot that gets very lucky, but is too naive to really make things work. Like many in these situations, he lets the sudden fortune get the better of him, and we all know what’s going to happen to someone like that even before the dialogue telegraphs it. At its core the movie is a cautionary tale about doing business with other people, especially when they have more experience than you. And while the slightly over two hour running time does drag a bit here and there, I found the end result to be rather engaging and respectable. There are many places where GOLD could have become a more sleazy and exploitative venture, but it seems to know when to restrain itself and just tell the story. Director Stephen Gaghan (SYRIANA) finds a nice balance of humor and dramatic intensity to keep the audience on their toes.
Edgar Ramirez turns in a great performance as Acosta, a mysterious and seemingly sensible man who is in many ways the smoother version of Kenny’s dreamer persona. As the film goes on, it’s a role that gets progressively more and more interesting. Bryce Dallas Howard is rather good as Kenny’s supportive yet put-upon wife, giving us a female force that is neither overly-dominant nor frustratingly submissive. Her reading of Kay is quite sympathetic and realistic, particularly for the time period. Corey Stoll has a significant role as a company man persuading Kenny to partner up to expand his options, and Toby Kebbell shows up later in the film as an FBI agent investigating Wells when things get out of control. One of the oddest (or at least unexpected) casting choices is Bruce Greenwood as a South African money man who threatens to take control of Kenny’s empire. I guess I’m so used to seeing Greenwood play an American that I found it a little distracting, but he’s of course still good while doing it.
The more I think about, I’m honestly not sure why GOLD got pushed out of the awards season, as not unlike THE FOUNDER it’s a film that has certain shortcomings, but the lead performance more than makes up for it. McConaughey is so good in this role, you almost don’t care about the story he’s in as you just want to watch him do what he does. And it’s funny to say that, as it’s not even close to one of his best performances, perhaps it’s just so visually unusual to see him this way that I found it to be a fascinating experiment. The film also says some unexpected twists and turns in the final act that elevate the narrative to feel much more important as a whole, and the end result will absolutely make for great conversation. As a January release, or even just as yet another McConaughey film, GOLD is definitely worth a look.