“We’re selling the story,” drawls mineral prospector Kenny Well (Matthew McConaughey). “Right now, the story is huge.” News headlines of the last few years have shown us how easy it is for big business to manipulate the stock market, and this should come as no surprise to anybody who has gone to the movies in the last few decades. From Wall Street to The Big Short, the market has risen and fallen at the whims of a handful of people. Based loosely on the Bre-X scandal of the 1990s, this dramatisation of events is a curious blend of genres that don’t always work together.
Sitting somewhere between The Treasure of Sierra Madre and a lighter version of The Wolf of Wall Street, the film follows Wells as a rough analogue for Bre-X’s John Felderhof. Wells is a businessman who has fallen on hard times after the Wall Street crash, but when he puts his faith in geologist Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramírez), the attempt to discover gold in the uncharted jungles of Indonesia becomes an all-consuming enterprise.
More than anything, GOLD is a chronicle of how a singular need to be proved right can drive a man to create an industry around himself. (In 2016, it allowed another product of the 1980s to become President of the United States). McConaughey, looking his worst with a potbelly and a combover, goes close to Fitzcarraldo lengths to push his vision over the metaphorical mountain. Writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman cast their lead as an imperfect anti-hero, a visionary without much foresight, and ultimately the architect of his own fate.
GOLD works best when it is laser focused on this pursuit. Sequences in the jungle are intense, with McConaughey and Ramírez working side-by-side to a point of near-death in the hope of catching a whiff of the titular mineral. It’s also here that Robert Elswit’s photography and Daniel Pemberton’s sweeping score, punctuated by a lot of Joy Division and New Order, are used to to their full potential, taking advantage of the lush Thailand locations.
Yet is is also a tonally uneven film, mixing sequences of lavish and opulent displays of wealth with seemingly random moments of Wells being interviewed by the authorities. There’s also a completely superficial romance with Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard), one that director Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) can’t quite decide what to do with. The film keeps returning to it, perhaps only to further humanise Wells, but it only serves to waste both Howard and the precious moments we have to explore what is an otherwise fascinating puzzle.
Propagandists around the world will tell you that if you repeat a big enough lie often enough, it becomes the truth. GOLD is a textbook example of how adding dollar signs to those mistruths can create entire business models. Whether you consider this to be the portrait of a flawed man, or just a flawed portrait, will come down to how deeply you were sucked in by that lie. GOLD holds its cards close to its chest until the bittersweet end, and like Wells himself, we may be left wondering if this is the work of foolishness or genius.