By 2018, your half-memory of seeing “Gold” will clarify the instant you see a photo of Matthew McConaughey in it.
The one-time matinee idol has again masterfully metamorphosed himself, this time into a manic, messed-up noodge with male pattern baldness. Think Woody Harrelson in “Kingpin” times a Dwight Yoakam scumbag divided by Christian Bale’s awards-chasing booze gut from “American Hustle.” Certainly, whatever impression the film leaves is due almost solely to the Oscar winner – who rides the line between wily iconoclast and abrasive asshole skillfully enough for you to retain rooting interest.
While “Gold” is not a parade of prints and prosthetics seeking a storyline a la “Hustle,” it still strains to equal the searing party’s-over socioeconomic satire of “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “The Big Short.” (At one point, McConaughey even appropriates his “fairy-dust” whistle from the former.)
Based on 1993’s Indonesian Bre-X gold mining scandal, it’s competently and unimaginatively directed by Stephen Gaghan (an Oscar winner for his “Traffic” screenplay) — right down to the color desaturation, whip-pans and “Spill the Wine” blaring on its soundtrack as its protagonists soar closest to the sun.
McConaughey is Kenny Wells, a washed-up prospector who has run his family’s mining company aground after his dad’s death. Brokering meager deals from hotel bars – which regularly keep a half-gallon of Seagram’s in his tank – Kenny is the laughingstock of larger outfits for whom huge land grabs are everyday protocol.
Similar snickers from scientific peers stalk geologist Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramirez, slightly less bland than normal), whose “Ring of Fire” theory about the Indonesian jungle (amounting to “where there’s copper, there’s gold”) has fallen on deaf, or disapproving, ears.
Pushing in what few chips he still carries, Kenny courts Michael – a geologist whom no one believes and a prospector without prospects. He seals the deal by agreeing to spin scintillating stories to potential piecemeal investors and accompany Michael downriver to be at his side in the sludge and slurry.
It’s here, in the believable bond between Kenny and Michael as unlikely partners and less likely pals, that “Gold” is most compelling. An orchestral arrangement of “This Must Be the Place” serves as elegantly ironic counterpoint to Kenny and Michael’s inevitable befouling of the land before them. Will this turn into a souped-up “Sierra Madre”? A downbeat going-native story? Cinematographer Robert Elswit, a longtime collaborator of Paul Thomas Anderson, cranks the visual humidity of the lush locales.
Once Michael’s tests reveal gold in them thar hills, Patrick Massett and John Zinman’s script simply pans for the predictable. Kenny’s corporate-raider rivals scramble to carve their own piece of his potential billion-dollar deal. He exacts prideful retribution against those who pushed him around for so long. The Feds poke around to find financial malfeasance and, eventually, Kenny and Michael’s friendship frays. (Bryce Dallas Howard appears as Kenny’s long-suffering girlfriend, but her only moment of note is losing her accent in the moment she has to Capital-A Act alongside McConaughey.) Neither boring nor bold, “Gold” goes through the motions of a more cautionary tale than it ultimately cares to tell.
The film rallies to close high with a third-act turn that suggests desperation blinds us to many things (and is, in hindsight, skillfully foreshadowed with establishing shots that traffic in “legend” archetypes). However, following the titans of which it’s so eager to remind you, “Gold” more closely resembles a bronze.