Every year, a certain breed of actor goes prospecting for the role that might bring him that sweet laudation. Gold, “inspired by a true story”, is that movie for Matthew McConaughey. It’s how he can fit one film about an entrepreneurial koala and another about a prospector into a short frame of time. The man’s got ambition. And Gold? It’s got something about it.
In the 1980s, down-on-his-luck prospector Kenny Wells (McConaughey, Sing) has a dream: he must go to Indonesia in search of gold. Teaming up with geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez, The Girl on the Train), they initially have no luck, until Wells’ malarial fever breaks and they find gold: the biggest strike of the eighties.
Loosely based on the story of Canadian David Walsh and his company Bre-X, Gold works best when taken as pure narrative. It has a hypnotic rhythm that it falls into the moment that Wells hits Indonesia. The story itself is intermittently interesting, but McConaughey manages to make it mean something more than the baseline that we’re being offered. In concert with Bryce Dallas Howard (Pete’s Dragon) as his long suffering girlfriend Kay, McConaughey fashions Wells into a deeper soul than his extreme physical transformation — 45 extra pounds, godawful hair and a wonky tooth — might have suggested. Wells becomes a real and vulnerable man under McConaughey’s stewardship, even when he is accurately described by another character as “like a raccoon who got his hands on the Hope Diamond”. McConaughey’s chemistry with Ramirez is more touch and go, and the film has its cake and eats it too with the line “I went looking for gold, and I found a friend” and immediately follows it up with a denunciation of its “hokeyness”.
Gold spent many years in development, with many different iterations of its script, including one which was more strictly based on the facts, before the final version care of writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman (TV’s The Blacklist) made its way to the screen. Gold has a screenplay that comes across as occasionally scrappy, with microscopic roles for Rachael Taylor (TV’s ARQ), Bruce Greenwood (Spectral) and Stacy Keach (Cell), most of which amount to next to nothing. In a particularly odd creative choice, a framing device is introduced from nowhere more than halfway through the film, a refugee of possible earlier structures that got edited into incoherence. It’s moments like these, and a brief encounter with a Suharto, that make for an oddity of a film.
Despite the finished product’s inconsistency, director Stephen Gaghan (White City) has a certain touch with much of the story, working with McConaughey to emphasise the film’s heart, and framing the Indonesia sequences with a spirit of adventure and friendship between Wells and Acosta that rings truer there than at any other moment in the film.
Gold is that strange beast: an okay story elevated by a performance richer than the material truly deserves. McConaughey acquits himself well, and at times Gaghan runs an almost spiritual ship, but Gold is a not quite essential piece: an Oscar hopeful that had its dreams dashed but still managed to realise those of its compelling central figure.
Gold opened in Australian cinemas on February 2, 2017.
Directed by: Stephen Gaghan.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rachael Taylor, Bruce Greenwood and Stacey Keach.