Gold. That’s what Matthew McConaughey took home on Oscar night in 2013 for his portrayal of AIDS patient Ron Woodroof in the critically lauded Dallas Buyers Club, and it sparked a sea change in the actor’s choice of roles. Since then he’s worked with Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and Gus van Sant, to name a few. Gone seem to be the romantic comedies, and the one-off potboilers that always did more for his status as sex symbol than his resume. He has appeared in great films throughout his career, like Richard Linklater’s Dazed And Confused in 1993, John Sayles’ Lone Star in 1996, Zemeckis’ Contact in ’97, and Bill Paxton’s Frailty in 2002, but they were not great BECAUSE of him. Now Gold might be the very first attempt to change that, as he saddles up to the supremely competent Stephen Gaghan (writer of TV’s NYPD Blue and The Practice, and the critically acclaimed film Traffic), for an unhinged character study of Kenny Wells, a confident, overly ambitious prospector, who will stop at nothing to find gold and follow the American dream to success. Unfortunately, his performance is the entirety of what the film has to offer, but it’s not a star-making performance, it’s a star-chasing performance, an empty vessel for scenery chewing that sucks all the energy from the rest of the cast into a black hole created by McConaughey himself, offering no insight or dramatic investment in his character.
We’ve seen it before; the lone wolf, the renegade, the outsider, who believes in the existence of something with all his heart, will stop at nothing to prove everyone else wrong who has written him off as a failure, then achieves it, and loses it all. The fact that this time it’s gold, and this time its Matthew McConaughey, are not significant enough changes to make up for the film’s shortcomings. When we meet Kenny Wells (based on real life person David Walsh) he’s on his way down, after a string of unsuccessful business ventures. Refusing to give up, and with convenient girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) sticking by his side, he seeks out geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) for one final Hail Mary attempt to strike it rich, somewhere in the Indonesian jungle. It leads to one of the biggest gold finds in history, and Kenny Wells riding as high on the hog as humanly possible, that is until corporate America comes calling to swallow him whole, and everything turns into one big scandal, when the cold light of day shines down on our hapless hero, and the film is able to indulge one of its very few big reveals for those unfamiliar with the real events.
Problems creep in right from the start, with the lack of developed supporting characters, and the increasing realization that there is nothing remotely “human” about Kenny Wells, as portrayed by McConaughey. Girlfriend Kay is scarcely seen except as a reinforcing shoulder for him to cry on. She is not a real person, with no defined dreams or goals; she exists as a character solely because he does, and is later brought out only when the screenplay needs to kick him when he’s down. Wells’ father, played by Craig T. Nelson, has a moment in the beginning and then he’s gone. Even Ramirez, the film’s only real pleasure, is quickly relegated to foil for McConaughey’s center stage drama, which includes a ridiculous scene rolling around on a cot in a fog of malaria. No, Gold is Matthew McConaughey and only Matthew McConaughey; it hitches all its wagons to his lone performance (no doubt why he chose the role), and can only go down in flames because of it.
Every scene pivots around his impersonation of a man on fire. He commands the screen constantly, arms flailing, head sweating, body language effusing useless energy that has absolutely nowhere to go. We don’t know anything about him other than his ambition. He doesn’t care about anything else. He has no secret Achilles Heel, like other much better films about a man vs. the world in the same vein, like Citizen Kane, or There Will Be Blood. There is no great tragic flaw for writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman to plunge into, and mine for dramatic cause. Gold is derivative, run-of-the-mill, ripped-from-the-headlines, direct-to-video material with a wildly uneven actor thrown into the mix like he has something to prove. Perhaps if the material gave him some support, by adding subtext to the story, or raising the stakes for the audience, or offering challenging supporting characters, or maybe if director Gaghan showed one-tenth of the ambition of his main character, in telling the story visually (see Scorsese’s Wolf Of Wall Street for the textbook), McConaughey wouldn’t seem so stranded. As it is there are scenes here so laughable, so empty in their emotional context, such the antithesis of resonance, that occasionally I had no choice but to feel bad for him. Matty McC cannot just step up to the mic and let it rip and expect great results.
For a film ultimately about scandal and betrayal, the only successful communication of that is the suffering it inflicts on the audience, and the cast and crew. Betrayed by a once noteworthy director (Syriana), and no doubt by his ego, McConaughey turns Gold into a mostly excrutiating experience. How much leeway you are prepared to give it will determine at what point you bail on the story, but it will most definitely happen at some point. There is just nothing here to latch onto, nothing grounding his wild scenery chewing. This could have been a serviceable entry in the “based on a true story” genre had they attached a different actor, or had Gaghan been able to reel things in better. But of course that is not worthy of Oscar gold. And that, sadly is the only story here that works.
The Verdict: Pan