‘All that glisters is not gold,’ wrote Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice), and you have to hand it to the guy, as he’s nailed it on the head. This Gold certainly glisters. You look at the poster and think: ‘Oh, yes. Glistery.’ It’s directed by Stephen Gaghan, who wrote and directed the terrific Syriana. It stars Matthew McConaughey. It’s based on a true mining scandal that is as outrageous as it is fascinating. But this Gold is not gold. It has its highly entertaining moments, and there is some fun to be had in McConaughey’s madly over-zealous performance but it is derivative (of The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short, American Hustle; with lots of men yelling into phones about money) and there are so many storytelling impulses on the go that none has any hope of ever hitting home. It isn’t the destination, it’s the journey, some people say, but I like to get some place, myself.
The inspiration for the film is the Canadian businessman David Walsh and the Nineties Bre-X mining scandal (look it up if you’ve a mind; you won’t regret it). But here the action has been moved to 1980s America where a fictionalised character, Kenny Wells (McConaughey), is trying to keep his family’s mining business afloat through a series of increasingly desperate schemes. His company, founded by his grandfather, which once occupied swanky offices, now operates from a dingy bar where Kenny and his few remaining employees yell down those phones as they hustle for business. No one wants to know him. He visits a banker, who dispatches underlings to send him on his way. The humiliation! (I loved that scene because I always love that scene. It is not an unfamiliar scene, I think we can agree, and of course we’re set to wonder: will Kenny get to do the humiliating in time?)
McConaughey, meanwhile, has uglied up for this role. He has snaggle teeth, a greasy bald patch and a fat belly (which, seriously, is me most days, but no one calls me ‘brave’, which is annoying). Kenny is driven by one desire and one desire only and it’s the desire to become obscenely rich. Nothing else matters. Even Gordon Gekko’s proclamation that ‘greed is good’ is, frankly, too lofty for Kenny. Here, greed is everything. Here, greed is why you get up in the morning.
But how to achieve such riches? Well, Kenny has a dream, literally. He has a dream that there’s gold in them thar Indonesian hills, and teams up with a geologist (a strangely somnolent Edgar Ramirez; he looks as though he can barely keep awake) who has a theory about where the gold must lie. Kenny chain-smokes and knocks back the whisky and tells his (inexplicably) long-standing girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) that this is it, and yells some more down the phone until he’s raised sufficient finance to start drilling in them thar Indonesian hills. And?
It’s not rags to riches. Instead, it’s rags to riches to rags to riches to rags to riches — or rags. (I’m not saying which as I don’t want the Spoiler Police banging on the door and pulling me, my fat belly and my greasy bald patch out of bed at 3 a.m. I need my unbeauty sleep.) I will only say that Wall Street becomes involved as everyone wants a piece of what may (or may not be) the biggest gold strike in decades. So it’s yet more yelling down phones — can you believe? — as Kenny hangs on to his wealth, loses it, hangs on, loses it, hangs on. (Or loses it.)
We are meant to root for him, I think, but as his only defining characteristic is that rampant greed, and as there is no moral take on this rampant greed, one wonders if this film ever asked itself why we would. This is not a redemptive fable and if not that, then what? A celebration of a despicable human being?
I’m not sure if the film knows, what with its multiple-story impulses. This variously plays like a Sierra Madre-type adventure story, a thriller, a crime caper, one of those excesses-of-capitalism narratives, a bromance and a romance, even though Dallas Howard is required to do little except be long-standing, inexplicably. There are those highly entertaining moments, just as McConaughey has electric moments, even if his performance is one-note in its madly over-zealous way. And the banker and his underlings do get their comeuppance, which has to be satisfying. (It always is.) But all that glisters is not gold. Shakespeare. What a guy.