‘Gold’ is a tricky movie to discuss since it’s essential a feature-length misdirect. If you knew precisely why it’s is a far better picture than it initially appears to be, the fun would be spoiled.
The film revels in bad behavior and greed like a great con being pulled over the viewers’ eyes by director Stephen Gaghan (who won an Oscar for writing ‘Traffic’, directed ‘Syriana’ and then essentially disappeared afterwards). It’s another tale of greed and a perverse play on the American dream not unlike ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. The filmmakers aggrandize and snidely satirize a sleazy wheeler-and-dealer perfectly played by Matthew McConaughey, but all in the service of a story so strange that it could only be true or you’d never believe it. The facts, dates and locations were changed just enough that you might not guess even if you somehow know the story. Don’t buy the trailers. Trust there’s something more.
McConaughey stars as Kenny Wells. We’re introduced to the character in the early 1980s, in full-on sexy charmer mode. He works for his father’s mining company and, along with his seemingly perfect girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard), is set to inherit the success. But time changes things. Fast forward a few years and Wells has a doughy belly and a rapidly receding hairline. His crumbling business is now run by phone out of the bar where Kay works as a waitress. It seems primed for disaster when the sleazeball spots a deal that might be what he’s looking for. He finds a partner in Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), who’s convinced that he knows where to find a gold mine in Indonesia and is searching for financial backing. Wells feels in his gut that Acosta is right and uses all of his sleazy skills to find the money to fund an expedition. They strike gold – lots of it. Soon, the smallest little mining company in Texas is the biggest player on Wall Street.
It’s pretty clear where things will go from there. Greed, corruption, inflated egos, small fish struggling in a big pond… the whole thing. Fortunately, Gaghan and his screenwriters aren’t out to make this material feel like a capitalist fairy tale. They’re critical of the world and have all sorts of dirty fun along the way. As thrilling as the rags-to-riches tale might be, it’s also littered with poor decisions, bad behavior, and manipulation. The ’80s fashions and cultural excesses are milked for all their silliness. The outfits and hairdos are hysterical, the behavior even funnier. The movie plays like a satirical twist on a false American fairy tale, and it’s damn funny.
Of course, everything hinges on Matthew McConaughey, and he’s more than happy to run away with the picture. McConaughey knows the type of man that Kenny Wells is and what makes him lovable, loathsome, talented and flawed. (Apparently, the character reminded him of his father… no need to read too deeply into that!) He happily dresses down and plays it up. All of the actor’s charm comes out, but it’s often perversely misdirected in pointedly funny ways. It’s no surprise that McConaughey also donned a producer cap to bring this sucker to the screen. It’s an ideal role for the lovable Texan with movie star looks and character actor chops, and he milks every scene for all it’s worth.
The biggest flaw of ‘Gold’ is that every other character seems small and every other actor underused by comparison. Bryce Dallas Howard is dependably strong, just stuck in a role with little to do. The same is true of most of the supporting players, with the possible exception of Edgar Ramierz. On first glance, he seems to be underplaying the part, but his performance will likely seem far more nuanced in retrospect.
‘Gold’ is one of those movies with a twist so good, it reframes everything that came before as a completely different story. While it’s clear that Gaghan is slyly satirizing this greedy, glittery world from the start, the depth of his dissection is deeper than it appears. This is a wild tale with twisted implications. The how and why just shouldn’t be revealed beforehand, which is a shame because viewers put off by the trailers and broad plot descriptions are likely to be the same viewers who will appreciate the film the most. Hopefully, McConaughey has earned enough good will over the last few years to get butts in seats through trust. If so, audiences will be slapped in the face with delightful surprise. If not, the movie will unceremoniously disappear from theater screens, only to be discovered later by viewers who come in with the blank slate the movie demands, in order to be taken on the unexpected ride they deserve. ‘Gold’ might not be perfect, but it has a hell of an ace hidden up its sleeve if you accept the hand that you’re dealt.