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January 27, 2017

Sometimes to understand what a movie gets right, you have to see another movie get it wrong. Take the true story of a scrappy upstart who hits it rich through dogged persistence and turns out to be a terrible person who rides on everyone else’s efforts. I found it okay when I saw it in The Founder, but I gained a whole new appreciation of that film after watching Gold.

This time it’s no slowly-dawning secret that Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) is sleazy. If the casting doesn’t make it clear, the combover should. It’s the late ’80s and the commodities market has turned against Washoe Mining, the prospecting company his grandfather founded. The remaining hangers-on work out of a bar, attempting to push their penny-stock over the phone to unsuspecting investors — shades of The Wolf of Wall Street. The only problem is they have no mining operations to speak of.

But Kenny is convinced that he can still make a big strike. He remembers meeting Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramírez), a geologist who picked the site of an enormous copper strike in Indonesia, and who pushed his “Ring of Fire” theory of mineral sites despite its disregard by mainstream geologists. Wells thinks Acosta might be onto something with his theory of a gold mine in Borneo, and he promises to get supply the capital if Acosta just tells them where to dig.

Of course, the site is out in the jungle, which means hiring guides and native workers, not to mention getting the permits which means bribing officials. Prospecting in Suharto’s Indonesia is a lot different than back home in Nevada. And that’s all before Wells gets laid up with malaria for a few weeks. But when his fever breaks, Acosta has news: the assays report an eighth-ounce of gold per ton of rock, which is evidently quite a rich vein, or so the characters seem to think.

And of course that’s where the trouble really starts, with Wall Street bankers (Corey Stoll) lining up to take the company public and then steer it towards a lucrative buyout by gold magnate Mark Hancock (Bruce Greenwood), who I guess by his accent is meant to be South African? it all gets kind of muddled in the middle there. But of course Wells has his pride and won’t take a giant check if his name doesn’t stay attached to the mine.

But to understand exactly why that’s such a terrible idea, we have to venture into spoiler territory. That said, on the one hand this is based on a true story, so if you remember it — I didn’t, going in — you already know the twist. And on the other hand the movie actually spoils itself for you, in one of the single worst structural flubs I’ve ever seen in an otherwise pretty okay movie.

So, fairly warned.

At about the halfway point, Wells and Acosta are sitting down with the bankers to convince them to invest. Wells starts to ramp up his pride already, not wanting to bring in an operational partner, which leads to a whole other subplot where the bankers try to wrest control from him using some underhanded tactics. But Acosta interrupts the argument by proposing a junket to illustrate the value of the site.

That’s when it happens: the action cuts to a hotel room where Wells is seated across from an FBI agent (Toby Kebbell), who asks him to verify that it was Acosta who proposed the junket. This is the first time we’ve seen anything about the FBI being involved, but now when we cut back to the junket itself we know to be suspicious. When one of the rank-and-file bankers who get sent along to report (Timothy Simons) finds gold in the river, we know it’s faked.

And so when the movie reveals the fraud, it comes as no surprise. When it honestly introduces the FBI investigators to the action, there’s no sense that the stakes are ramping up for Wells. Just one shard of a scene, cut in for no discernible reason, that totally deflates the second half of the movie. It’s the clearest example I’ve ever seen of a cinematic own-goal.

Still, it’s not like this one was headed for greatness even before it tripped over its feet along the way. It’s the same McConaughey character as ever, rehashing character dynamics we’ve seen before. Don’t buy in to this fool’s Gold.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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