Gold review: “Another iridescent gem of a turn by McConaughey”

Matthew McConaughey shines brightly, but this treasure-hunting tale doesn't quite hit the mother lode

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★★★

While mining the current trend for movies that expose the outrageously hollow investment strategies of Wall Street bankers, Gold also celebrates another real-life chancer played in winning style by Matthew McConaughey.

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His balding and bedraggled prospector Kenny Wells is actually a fictionalised version of Canadian businessman David Walsh in a film that takes dramatic licence with the true story of a scandal involving his Bre-X mining company. Far from taking liberties, though, it may even have benefited from a few more creative whims to bolster the enticing pitch.

With a hint of crazy in his eyes and a lot of fire in his (very ample) belly, McConaughey encapsulates everything that a treasure hunter should be. Besides his obvious passion for the role, he’s easy to root for because there is an innocence as well, core to his character, that sets him apart from the stock brokers who jump on his bandwagon.

Wells’s journey begins in the 1980s with a simple dream that plagues his sleep one night and sends him from Reno, Nevada (a switch from Calgary, presumably to evoke the Gold Rush mentality) all the way to Indonesia. There, he bankrolls an old acquaintance with the last bit of capital he has in a company bequeathed to him by his father, to satisfy a hunch.

Michael Acosta (a contrastingly suave Edgar Ramirez) is a geologist with a famed track record in pinpointing valuable ore and with Wells’s backing, unearths nuggets of gold that promise the mother lode lying just beyond a lush mountainside.

Thus, director Stephen Gaghan (best known as the Oscar-winning writer of Traffic) starts out by leading us on a feverish jungle adventure that echoes the 1947 classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Wells driven half mad by the glimmer of riches and a case of malaria. But the real substance of the story is in the immediate fallout from the gold strike.

Back at home, Wall Street suits clamour for a piece of the action, but when he turns down a $300 million deal, it’s clear that Wells isn’t just in this for the money. His head is turned, though, and it drives a wedge between him and Bryce Dallas Howard, playing his down-to-earth other half, Kay. There is mild friction, too, between Wells and Acosta, although for the most part they stand united against an army of Manhattan suits led by a too-smooth Corey Stoll.

Frustratingly though, these power struggles never create enough trouble or tension, and because Wells makes it clear that fabulous wealth isn’t his ultimate goal (and because Kay walks away from it, too), his increasingly madcap efforts to retain mining rights don’t seem to matter much either.  

Lucky for Gaghan that McConaughey can bear that burden and sweep you up in his enthusiasm, an essence powerfully distilled when he confronts a tiger to impress an Indonesian prince who might help his cause. His portrayal is bejewelled with witty little acts of self-assuredness, sometimes strutting around in his y-fronts yet almost constantly sweating with desperation.  

When, eventually, accusations of fraud swirl around Wells and scandal breaks, his regret is palpable, too. He may be innocent, a victim himself, or there may be more to the story than Gaghan has uncovered. The finale leaves you with a bit of uncertainty, but, more importantly, there’s another missed opportunity to see our hero dig deeper for redemption.

Wells stands alone, whether it’s on Wall Street or in a crowd of angry investors. That’s both a virtue and a drawback of the film, especially as it begins to become apparent that he is hunting, not really treasure, but glory. Underlying this is a suggestion that he wants to honour his father, but Gaghan doesn’t quite latch onto the seam that would have turned this into box office gold.

Content yourself instead with another iridescent gem of a turn by McConaughey.

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Gold is released in cinemas on Friday 3 February