You may not remember it, so successful was the turnaround, but there was a time not too long ago when Matthew McConaughey was a bit of a joke. Plucked from low-rent horror sequel near-obscurity by director Joel Schumacher for a star-making role in the eagerly anticipated film adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, he appeared in a handful of prestige follow-ups before settling into what seemed his default mode: frothy rom-coms whose laziness was so pervasive, McConaughey couldn’t even bother to stand up straight for their posters. He winked and smirked and drawled his way through these easy paycheck roles – and then suddenly, he didn’t. He’s spent the 2010s cultivating a remarkable second act, focusing on forceful work in high-quality dramas for challenging directors, culminating in his Best Actor Oscar for 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club.
The trouble is, if you play any kind of role too many times, you can fall into a rut. Dallas Buyers Club cast McConaughey as an outcast, drawn to a cause out of self-interest, only to find himself fighting for a group without a voice. Last summer’s Free State of Jones cast McConaughey as an outcast, drawn to a cause out of self-interest, only to find himself fighting for a group without a voice. And now Gold casts Club cast McConaughey as an outcast, drawn to a cause out of self-interest… well, you get the idea.
Based on a true story (of course), Gold concerns Kenny Wells (McConaughey), first seen in 1981 as a mining company’s hotshot son-of-the-boss. After one of those blaring exposition scenes where he explains what they do, in the simplest possible terms, to both his best girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the audience (“Your handbag is Mother Earth”), we flash forward seven years, a passage of time mostly signaled by Kenny’s regressing hairline and exceedingly sweaty desperation. The company is now barely surviving, so in a last-ditch attempt to save it, he teams up with Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez) on a hunch that there’s gold in the Indonesian jungle.
Turns out, there is. The duo gets immediately, insanely rich, and are immediately courted by investors and Wall Street types (and the parade of great character actors playing them, including Corey Stoll, Bill Camp, Stacey Keach, and Bruce Greenwood). There’s a Scorsese Lite good-time-partying section, though we know something is amiss thanks to McConaughey’s mournful voice-over narration – though, in a bit of structural monkey-wrenching that probably seemed innovative but just comes off miscalculated, we don’t get the setting and context of that narration until a good hour into the movie.
The problems start well before then, however. Throughout the entire movement of triumph and success, it feels as though we’re supposed to be rooting for Wells, and happy for him. But Patrick Massett and John Zinman’s script never provides a compelling reason to, aside from the fact that Matthew McConaughey’s playing him, and by the time he’s scum-bagging and bird-dogging the long-suffering Howard, that’s not enough. (And she, alas, is yet another trite female lead who’s on hand primarily to argue with the protagonist, and then charitably take him back. Oh, and to touch his heart and say, “I know what’s in there.”)
The director is Stephen Gaghan, helming his first theatrical feature since 2005’s Syriana, and I have no idea what the wait was for if he was waiting for this. There are, to be clear, some satisfying moments and sharp performances, and flashes of inspiration in the cutting and framing department (there are two separate scenes of fights viewed through windows, and damn if the joke doesn’t work both times.) It’s nicely shot by the great Robert Elswitt (There Will Be Blood), and the pulsing score by Daniel Pemberton (Steve Jobs) works overtime to give the events an urgency that’s otherwise unearned.
But Gaghan’s instincts frequently fail him, I’m not just talking about the part where he needle-drops the “don’t walk away in silence” lyric from Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” as McConaughey… walks away in silence. The film’s failures come into sharpest focus in its third act; there’s a final scene whose reveal is less clever and satisfying the more you think about it (that is to say, for more than ten seconds), and a big speech in which Wells holds forth at an awards banquet about What A Prospector Is, which is written and delivered with such second-hand sincerity that clearly neither the writers, the director, nor the actors realized exactly how goofy it is.
McConaughey comes off particularly poorly in this scene, investing each strained syllable with the wistful earnestness that’s become his factory default. It’s not that it’s a bad performance, precisely; it’s that it’s such a predictable performance, even the actor seems bored with it. Perhaps, after half a decade of searing intensity and startling physical transformations, he just needs to relax a little. Maybe try his hand at a nice romantic comedy.
Gold opens wide on Friday.