In the pre-title sequence of “Gold,” Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) is summoned to his father’s (Craig T. Nelson) office. Dad waxes eloquently about the family’s mining business. He says, “You work hard, sometimes for nothing.” And that line aptly describes “Gold,” a film that works very hard for nothing. The performers, McConaughey, especially — he reportedly gained 47 pounds for the role — work hard, for nothing. And the director, Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”) also works hard, for nothing. Even audiences will work hard for nothing.
“Gold” is inspired by a true story of Kenny Wells and the Bre-X case. The film recounts so many reversals of fortunes that viewers are likely to get whiplash — if they still care to follow the action in the last reel.
The film opens in 1981 Reno, when Kenny is working for his father’s company, Washoe Mining. Kenny is such a slick operator that every time he drawls the words, “Washoe money,” it sounds eerily like he’s saying, “Watch yo’ money!” Given what happens to Washoe investors, you can’t say folks weren’t warned.
Cut to seven years later, where the failing economy has Kenny operating what’s left of the family business out of a bar. He’s balding, potbellied and desperately looking for a mother lode. As his voice-over indicates, Kenny is living with his girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) and about to lose the house, too. But then Kenny, sleeping off half a gallon of Seagram’s, has a dream.
He envisions the “ring of fire,” a huge, buried gold mine in Indonesia. His dream looks like a Sebastian Salgado photograph, with local men climbing ladders up hills (rather than going into pits) with sacks on their backs. And at the heart of his dream is Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez), an Indiana Jones-ish geologist who talks about geothermal hot spots while a woman massages him. Michael is the man — sauve, practical and smart. Kenny decides, he will be the money.
Pawning the gold watch he gave Kay, Kenny travels to Jakarta to meet Michael. His beaming smile as he cabs to Michael’s hotel is meant to be infectious, but it comes off as a foolish grin. Kenny uses his rascally charm to purr seductively at Michael and convince him to go for the gold. But Michael is unmoved; he calls Kenny’s bluff, saying he will “make it work.” The two men soon head out into the jungle in search of that hidden treasure, the “ring of fire.”
“Gold,” however, doesn’t really develop any genuine excitement in the scenes or between these two larger-than-life characters; the dynamic is too cool. That might deliberate given how the story pans out, but the lack here is indicative of the film’s larger problems. For example, despite the heat, rain and mud in the Indonesian jungle, little of the atmosphere feels palpable. When Kenny is laid up with malaria, and the workers go on strike and financial setbacks occur, the drama still fails to engage emotionally. These moments only signal that a huge payoff is coming.
And sure enough, a few scenes later, Kenny, cured of malaria and clad in his tighty-whiteys and an Iron Maiden T-shirt, wraps his legs around Michael’s waist hugging him exuberantly. The geologist has claimed they just found gold. It’s a big, emotional moment. But the film is so flat, it’s is hard to share the men’s enthusiasm. Moreover, when one character describes how gold is like a drug, “the taste of it on your tongue. . . the feel of it on your fingers,” Gaghan fails to convey that sense of wonder, either.
Viewers should sense early on that there is something phony at play. And there is, as “Gold” eventually reveals in a scene that is not nearly as jaw-dropping as it should have been.
This may be because Gaghan stretches out the film needlessly before that big moment. There is a lengthy, unexciting subplot involving Brian Woolf (a wasted Corey Stoll), whose company wants to offer Kenny “strategic help.” This narrative thread spirals out further to have Brian’s colleague, Rachel (Rachael Taylor) flirt shamelessly with Kenny, causing him to fight with Kay.