by Larry Oliver
Gold announces itself as ‘based on a true story’ but you would be hard-pressed to find anything on the internet relating to Kenny Wells, the balding oil prospector played by Matthew McConaughey. The basis of the film is a scandal that took place in 1997 involving Bre-X Minerals, a Canadian company whose stock price shot up by 100,000% after it claimed the largest gold deposit find of the century, buried deep underground in a collapsed volcano on the island of Borneo. The find was a great big phoney. One of the perpetrators of the hoax, Bre-X vice chairman John Felderhof, got away with a share of $50 million dollars from the sale of stock – after escaping to the Canary Islands, he now lives in the Philippines. His deputy geologist, Mike de Guzman, suffered a fate broadly replicated in the film. Meanwhile, Felderhof’s boss, Bre-X CEO David Walsh, suffered a brain aneurysm and died in a hospital bed in the Bahamas, aged 52.
In retelling the story, writers Patrick Massett and John Zinman (who worked together on Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the TV series Friday Night Lights) and director Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) play fast and loose with the facts. The characters are all fictionalised – only the fraud is broadly accurate.
When we first meet him in 1981, Kenny (a composite of Brederhof and Walsh) has a full head of hair and a team dedicated to finding potential leads, sites that could yield a deposit of some kind. Cut to 1988, a full decade before the Bre-X scandal and Kenny who has lost his father (Craig T. Nelson) and has significant alopecia, is working out of a bar. (McConaughey broadly resembles Les Grossman, the character played in Tropic Thunder by his co-star, Tom Cruise.)
Although he can acquire 90 day options on land, Kenny can’t secure a bank loan to exploit them. Then he remembers famed geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) who is working in Indonesia. Kenny flies out to give him the ‘ring of fire’ speech. I’m not sure why McConaughey would want to pay tribute to one of his lesser movies (Reign of Fire) from 2002 but there are some phrases that he can sell in a Southern accent.
If Kenny can secure hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment in a potential location of gold at the foot of a mountain, then Acosta will work with him. A deal is signed on a handkerchief – something that only happens in movies. (I mean, have you ever met anyone with a clean hankie?)
With famed geologist Acosta, who has one significant find to his name, as a draw, Kenny raises 240 G – enough to get started. Men are hired, digging starts, then the money runs out and Kenny contracts malaria.
At this point, Kenny recovers from his fever to some surprising news – they have found gold. The lab reports verify the find – they have a complicated arrangement to ensure its integrity – and Kenny returns to the US to re-position his company.
Gold suffers in comparison with recent exposés of financial scandals, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short. We know broadly how it will pan out, but Gaghan doesn’t employ any of the formal tricks that directors Martin Scorsese and Adam McKay used to make us giddy with excitement – the occasional split-screens don’t cut it. Gaghan’s ace card is McConaughey who goes the extra mile to compromise his leading man star image, appearing in several scenes with a waist line flopping over his tighty white y-fronts (for the curious, Mr McC is an ‘innie’). Every so often, he speechifies, tongue ablaze (‘it’s not about the money, it’s about the gold’; ‘there’s something about gold that is different’), contrasted with the calm, measured Acosta. Their odd-couple relationship mirrors, ever so slightly, the relation between Ron Woodruff and Rayon (McConaughey and Jared Leto) in Dallas Buyers Club. They are two men who need each other, but wouldn’t work together otherwise.
In one section that broadly mirrors real events, Kenny finds his company subject to a take-over bid; he is advised to take on a partner, something he rejects flat out. After a series of complications, Kenny finds himself proving himself by attempting to pet a tiger. This scene appears to have inspired Daniel Pemberton’s score that takes the bass and drum line of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ (from Rocky 3) and runs with it for the entire movie.
Gold, which bears no relation to the 1974 adaptation of a Wilbur Smith novel, starring Roger Moore, is never boring and there is novelty value in seeing Bryce Dallas Howard as Kenny’s waitress lover, Kay, resemble Farrah Fawcett Majors (one of the original Charlie’s Angels) at one point. The film’s major crime is to suggest that Kenny was innocent of the scam – his interviews with FBI officers frame some of the action. Although detracting from his physical appeal, McConaughey stills plies 18 carat charm. You forget that he also resembles Johnny Depp’s Hunter S. Thompson and root for him as the New York financial sharks (embodied by Corey Stoll) circle his company.
There is nothing particularly remarkable about the film. Its message though is timely: when something is too good to be true, people want to believe it, even at the expense of their better judgment. They won’t take responsibility for being had. Unlike Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey is the whole show – by contrast, Ramirez underplays his scenes. Acting showcases in isolation rarely win awards, but I’ve been wrong before.
Gold opens in the UK on 3 February 2017