For all the talk of a McConaissance – that process by which Matthew McConaughey was saved from nickel-and-dime romcoms and returned to the Hollywood big leagues – the actor’s eye for a script has seemed erratic of late. True, he earned an Oscar for 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, and acclaim for his chameleonic work on TV’s True Detective. Yet he struck out with last year’s Free State of Jones, a true-life slavery story converted into painfully windy Oscar bait, and he’s been snubbed again for his work on Gold – though this new project at least allows him a modicum of fun, some of which trickles down to the audience.
That McConaughey was serious about returning to the podium can be seen in the physical transformation he undergoes here. As independently minded prospector Kenny Wells, the sometime Magic Mike heartthrob presents to us with a thinning hairdo reminiscent of Little Britain’s Andy, a beer gut on a par with Christian Bale’s in American Hustle, and an endlessly distracting snaggletooth. What Stephen Gaghan’s film marvels at, beyond this conspicuous makeunder, is how this unprepossessing schlub came to make a killing in the rainforests of Indonesia, the last place anybody was looking at the back end of the 1980s.
There’s an element of risk here comparable to Wells’ own gamble in going East to make his fortune. Gaghan, the screenwriter of Traffic who turned director with 2005’s Syriana, is betting on multiplex audiences becoming piqued and compelled by the dry-sounding detail of international mining rights. Some of the spadework has been done by that run of big-business stories that are presumably easier to pitch now that Hollywood studios are owned by major conglomerates: Gold is the adventure-movie variant of The Social Network, Moneyball or The Big Short, making its biggest deals in the great outdoors.
McConaughey’s charisma helps to get us on side and carry us along. The first half, introducing Wells as another American dreamer, can seem uncritical: with nothing in place to do for the titular element what There Will Be Blood did for oil, our hero gets rich awfully quick. This, however, proves intentional, a midfilm twist reconfiguring this story’s entire nature, while repositioning the protagonist as the last of a dying breed. Put it this way: should the incoming President demand a White House screening, he might start to shift uncomfortably in his throne somewhere around the halfway mark.
For everybody else, Gold will serve as a broadly watchable entertainment, gilded as it is with choice period hits and supporting players capable of doing a lot with those small sections of screen the star isn’t hungrily devouring. Edgar Ramirez plays it cool as the Sancho Panza-like partner who kept his feet on the ground as Wells’ head disappeared further into the clouds; the dependable Corey Stoll and Bill Camp are the Gordon Gekko types Wells sorely regrets getting into bed with; Bryce Dallas Howard radiates as Kay, the great love our guy lost the minute he began treating her as a secretary.
Nobody’s mining too deep: compared to the subtler dramatic accomplishments currently on release, Gold looks to have been conceived as a platform for an enjoyably showy central turn. (The scene in which McConaughey-as-Wells collects an industry award might have been too blatant even for Academy voters.) Up until the last, Gaghan seems unsure whether his subject deserves comeuppance or a reward – and therefore whether the film entire is a cautionary tale or just a colourful character study. Still, if you felt inclined to catch one of 2017’s Oscar also-rans, this one wouldn’t be an entirely unworthy investment of time and money.
Gold opens in cinemas nationwide today.