Gold’s value lies chiefly in the hearts and minds of those who seek it. The noble metal has driven humans to perpetrate ignoble acts on their quests to unearth it since at least 5000 B.C.E., when slaves divined for golden veins to lavish their Pharaohs with jewelry. The Incas even thought golden nuggets were tears of their sun god, which only increased their value. But the mass hysteria surrounding this one-rare metal has more to do with power than with money. It’s like the cynical punchline of the Golden Rule from the old Wizard of Id comic strip: “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.”
In Stephen Gaghan’s inspired-by-true-events crime adventure Gold, Matthew McConaughey plays a slovenly King Midas–type prospector, Kenny Wells, who’s lost his touch after his father dies and leaves him a formerly booming mining company. Desperate to make a hit, he pursues the partnership of a brilliant young geologist, Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramírez), who’d hit on a huge copper mine in Indonesia before going bust on another prospect. The simple story is that two men knee-deep in failures form an unlikely bond — one a loudmouth alcoholic, and the other a poetic, stern adventurer — to prove to the world that they’ve still got it by discovering the biggest gold mine of all time … until it’s not.
Gold isn’t just about gold; it’s about knocking the elites off their Wall Street towers, a kind of The Big Short meets The Goonies parable, barely addressing the irony that these men are seeking to become the same money monsters as the bank executives, only in sheep’s clothing. So for all the prospects this parable holds, it’s merely gilded in those big ideas — the bulk of it is made of dense, dull materials already hashed out in numerous other capers.
Gaghan’s choice to set the drama in 1981 is the first poor decision. The real story this film is based on is actually from 1993, but the director is bent on aping the attitudes and styles of late-’70s heist movies, complete with copious split screens, getting-rich montages and sexy women as set dressing. It’s as though the flash and false glamor of that disco era are the stand-ins for real character or story development — but all that glitters isn’t good.
McConaughey’s Kenny is a disheveled, balding man whose hair and face perpetually glisten with sweat. The audience is supposed to champion his cause because the banker “suits” lack his charisma and everyman charms, but Kenny is the kind of blowhard antihero we’ve been fed as the “good guy” for far too long. From the very beginning of this film, he’s trading gold for power, gifting a tacky watch to his longtime girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is so far out of his league that it boggles the mind — why must he have such a comically pronounced paunch and thinning hairline? McConaughey turns his everyman into a caricature of the working class, his version of lesser than.
Meanwhile, Kay is the super-hot good girl next door who’ll support her man through thick or thin despite his lack of redeeming qualities, with the drunk smashing glass after glass against the wall when he doesn’t get his way. Even as the film slaps Kenny on the wrist for not taking more menial jobs to help support the couple, it’s mostly condoning his big-dreaming maniacal obsession with gold. It’s what we see time and again from these films that glorify the single-minded infatuation men have with objects or ideas, laying waste to anyone in their circle, specifically women, who are the first casualty on a man’s conquest. Kay’s only function here is to be a kind, dimwitted pretty thing against which we can gauge her man’s waning morality.
Ramírez does his best to straight-man his way through McConaughey’s clowning performance — where it seems almost a contest to see how gross he can make his character. (Does he have to wear slightly wet tighty-whiteys so often?) It’s Ramírez’s subdued, thoughtful turn that lends the film credibility as a drama, but it’s his character’s function as the white-passing but exotic South American that grates. Since the film is so much about these men selling the idea of their gold mine to trick investors, Michael being the tall, suave Latino does make sense in a meta way — the Americans are taken by his rugged exoticism, and he plays that up with poetic talk about gold. But it’s worth noting that the real person on whom Acosta is based is a short-in-stature Filipino man, and I have to wonder if perhaps Gaghan or the studio didn’t think Americans could buy a short Asian man wielding such persuasive power.
Over and over again, the film seems to be asking: What makes a man a man? And the answer it gives is that a man is not a man without absolute power, so this is what he should strive for. In the end, the whole thing is a bit like one big golden shower pissing contest, with every male character vying for top of the trough. Frankly, after thousands of years of this, a reprehensible new president and one other abysmal treasure-hunting film from McConaughey (Fool’s Gold), I’m a little tired of men gilded in a shimmering psychosis.