In Gold, Matthew McConaughey sports a paunch, a misshapen tooth, oily skin, unkempt facial hair, a terrible hairline, and really bad suits. He looks gross. Honestly, he’s hard to look at for two hours, and I needed to remind myself every once in a while that McConaughey actually looks like this:
Here’s the irony: There’s almost no reason for McConaughey to look like this. While Gold is very, very loosely based on a true story (one that didn’t involve gold, but penny stocks — see below), the character of Kenny Wells is entirely fictitious. He could have looked like anyone. He could have looked like this:
The other irony, however, is this: McConaughey’s slovenliness is the only thing that gives Gold the patina of prestige. The movie itself is not much better than Fool’s Gold (the lousy rom-com from which the above photo comes), but it wants to trick us into thinking it’s better by asking McConaughey to gain 40 pounds, tear out his hair, and appear shirtless (or pantsless) periodically. In fact, for pure entertainment’s sake, Fool’s Gold is probably better; Gold is more akin to a seedier, duller, more lackluster version of Wolf of Wall Street.
McConaughey plays Wells, a struggling 1980s prospector who has bottomed out. One night, he has a dream in which he discovers gold in Indonesia with the help of a geologist, Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), who is also in a downswing. Buoyed by the dream, Wells pawns his girlfriend’s (Bryce Dallas Howard, mostly wasted) jewelry and catches a flight to Indonesia, where he convinces Acosta to help him dig for gold.
The movie, however, is bookended by an FBI investigation, so we know there’s something afoot, and those familiar with McConaughey’s oeuvre (see the above photo) won’t have much difficulty figuring it out. The plot, however, is not really the point of Gold, because the story — written by Patrick Massett and John Zinman — is not very good, nor is Stephen Gaghan’s unenthusiastic direction. The movie is almost entirely about McConaughey’s performance, and he is fantastic, if you can get over your revulsion.
What’s truly remarkable about McConaughey — and what makes the character work, even if the movie doesn’t — is his confidence. Even when he looks like he does in this movie, he never lacks for brashness or tenacity. It’s not hard to believe that dozens of people are willing to back a whim based on a dream because McConaughey sells it. What he can’t sell, unfortunately, is a script that drags on for two hours before fizzling out. Ultimately, Gold is not a good movie, but it’s a perfect example of a great performance in a terrible film.
I would add, however, that the “based on a true story” business is fairly misleading here. The real story didn’t involve a gold prospector but a Canadian businessman named David Walsh. He bought a plot of land in Indonesia and his geologist — who later killed himself in the same manner as depicted in the film (by taking a header from a helicopter) — salted the mine with gold flakes, purportedly without Walsh’s knowledge. The promise of gold drove up the price of the penny stock, but when the fraud was uncovered, millions of dollars were lost, lawsuits were filed, and Walsh’s company went bankrupt. It’s one of the biggest stock scandals in Canadian history. For those wondering what happened to Kenny Wells after the events of the film — well, there is no Kenny Wells. But David Walsh died of a brain aneurysm a year after the fraud was uncovered (there is no suggestion that he ever profited — even secretly — off the gold mine, so that final scene with the check was total bullsh*t, and the Bryce Dallas Howard character appears to be a fictitious invention.) For those who want to know more, here’s the lowdown on the Bre-X scandal from Wikipedia.