Loosely inspired by the story of David Walsh and the Bre-X Minerals mining scandal in the 1990’s, Gold is director Stephen Gaghan’s first wide release directorial effort since Syriana over a decade ago. Unlike that film though, Gaghan didn’t handle writing duties here, and quality may have suffered because of it.
Scripted intricacies in Gold are not nearly as incisive and sophisticated as previous Gaghan efforts like Syriana or his Oscar-winning screenplay for Traffic. Instead, writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman constantly rely on fortune cookie-style dialogue to hammer home messages that never reach the profoundness they so desire. It’s still a fascinating story, with a topsy-turvy third act that’s fairly engaging finale if you weren’t already familiar with the real life scandal, but what really saves this film from mediocrity starts and ends with Matthew McConaughey.
Gold centers on the charismatic and relentlessly hopeful mineral prospector Kenny Wells (McConaughey). His company, Washoe Mining is on its last legs, failing to acquire funding as investors shy away from his go-for-broke ambitious proposals. After getting blasted drunk one night on Seagram’s gin, Kenny dreams of a giant gold mining operation in Indonesia. The next morning, he’s pawning off his most valuable jewelry – including his girlfriend Kay’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) prized gold watch – and setting off for Indonesia in a last ditch effort to make a huge strike. There he meets with former hot-shot geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), who has been unable to get his own mining projects funded ever since his “Ring of Fire” theory flamed out. Kenny promises to raise the funds Michael needs to try again and together they begin on what becomes the largest gold strike in history…or so it seems.
Just as we’ve watched him do time and time again, McConaughey absolutely owns this role. His Kenny Wells is a fully realized character with ticks and habits that repeat throughout the film. Overwhelmed by a predicament, you’ll see him grab his temples and whine in agony. When he’s feeling confident, he’ll shake out his wrist. These things may seem minor on paper, but on-screen, such consistency of performance and character-building can elevate a good performance to a great one. With all the booze that Kenny Wells consumes, it’s a good thing that McConaughey also transformed himself physically. His weight gain and beer belly paunch help emphasize in a real way that this guy was a tried and true alcoholic.
The very first scene of the film shows Kenny’s respected prospector father (Craig T. Nelson) making him the lead on a mining project in the hopes that he can start to build his own legacy. Although he only appears in this one instance (the film jumps ahead in time past his death), the presence of Kenny Wells Sr. is felt the whole way through. This relentless pursuit to prove himself worthy of his father’s legacy is what drives Kenny’s desperation, and is the prime difference between him and the other players on the board who are motivated by greed.
Gaghan’s film does a good job of showcasing the back and forth of corporate backstabbing when big money is up for grabs. Unfortunately though, there are just too many characters in play, most dipping in and out with no real time spent developing them. The gold-digging Rachel Hill (Rachael Taylor) is introduced as an important character when her flirting at a party causes Kenny and Kay to separate – but then she vanishes, only to resurface one more time where she *once again* does some gold-digger flirting that accomplishes nothing.
Is there heart in this film? Absolutely. Bryce Dallas Howard is wonderful as the adoring and hard-working longtime girlfriend Kay. She’s always full of life, whether it’s her excitement at receiving a single flower, or doe-eyed and completely out of her element at a big party on Wall Street. You never question why Kenny is so head over heels for her. Kenny and Michael’s partnership turned friendship provides some truly heartfelt moments, too. Their kindred spirit brotherhood is well established and makes for effective drama when things start to go awry.
While the screenwriters are able to avoid bogging down the viewer with excessive lingo regarding gold mining and the stock market, they explicitly spell out themes that are maybe better left unsaid. Shortcomings with the script aside, Gold offers a golden McConaissance-worthy performance. That, coupled with fascinating source material helps make this based on a true story adventure thriller worthy of your time.
Gold might be a flawed find, but it's worth seeing for Matthew McConaughey's performance alone.