“Based on a too good to be true story”, GOLD is worth its weight in gold thanks to outstanding performances by Matthew McConaughey and Edgar Ramirez, not too mention that “too good to be true” true story itself adapted for the big screen by scribes Patrick Massett and John Zinman.
Anyone with an understanding of the mining industry (or devotees of self-described “stone hound” Jay King) and investing may recall back in the late 1980’s/early 90’s, one of the greatest cons of the modern era involving Canadian company Bre-X Minerals. On the advice of geologist John Felderhof, penny stock promoter for Bre-X, David Walsh, bought land in Borneo near the allegedly mineral rich Busang River. Hiring Filipino geologist Michael de Guzman as project manager, it was de Guzman who espoused the site held at least 70 million ounces of gold. Walsh and Felderhof as entrepreneurs who risked everything based on de Guzman’s representations, this in led to bankers, investors and other mining companies either investing in something that all would soon learn would not “pan out” and/or taking advantage of the rather naive pair. And when s**t hit the fan, de Guzman – the man at the crux of the apparent con – disappeared, either dead or just missing (that is still a mystery to this day), leaving Walsh and Felderhof to take the fall with federal investigations, lawsuits and more. Were they in on de Guzman’s con? Who knows. But the entire chain events complete with skullduggery, exotic location, the allure of gold and shades of “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” make for terrific storytelling which leads us to GOLD.
Changing Bre-X to the fictitious Reno, Nevada based Washoe Mining, Inc. and David Walsh to Kenny Wells, GOLD is smelted into a whip cracking tale of dreams and intrigue, both fueled to their fullest by McConaughey and Ramirez.
The mining business is in Kenny Wells’ blood. Washoe Mining was founded by his father, a man who could smell a claim a mile away while still working hard for every success he had. While Kenny has that same spirit for digging a fortune from the earth, he doesn’t have the moral mettle of his father. He’s looking for that 14kt gold ring. Determined to make a name for himself and come back from the bottom of the barrel to which he has sunk, he sells everything he owns – and everything his girlfriend owns – heading to Borneo on a hunch that he knows where the next big strike is.
Mike Acosta is a legend in the mining world. (For cinematic purposes, Acosta is an amalgamation of real life Michael de Guzman and John Felderhof) It’s as if he has a spiritual connection with the earth. He “knows” where the richest veins are, be it for copper, silver or gold. Acosta is who Wells reaches out to in his darkest hours, hoping beyond hope that Acosta can lead him to the mother lode. Entering into a written contract on a cocktail napkin that says “Fifty-Fifty. Prove ‘em all wrong.” Acosta and Wells embark on their quest.
Striking gold, it seems the vein is endless. Acosta values the strike at a number to make it one of the biggest in history.
Leaving Acosta to oversee mining operations, Wells heads back to Reno where he is now treated like royalty, except by his girlfriend Kay who has been to this rodeo with Wells before and suspects the same outcome as in the past. Trying to protect Wells from his own dreams, Lay finds herself pushed to the back of the bus as Wells is almost punch-drunk with delusions of golden grandeur. And while Wells seems a bit crazy and over-enthusiastic hyping the anticipated gold strike, Acosta’s calm demeanor brings a grounding to the argument for investors and banks to believe in the pair. Unfortunately, the more knowledgeable and reliable Acosta appears, the more seemingly unstable and unreliable Wells becomes.
But just as Acosta and Wells are riding high, the dream starts to shatter. There is no gold. Assays come back on the bags of mined rock saying nothing is gold. So what happens when assets are frozen, the Feds close in on you and your 50-50 partner disappears?
Matthew McConaughey is over the top crazy as Kenny Wells; think the Tasmanian Devil on speed. Once you get beyond the hilarity of his appearance with the balding hair and protruding belly (not to mention a very very very unflattering McConaughey butt shot) and start looking at the performance, as comes as no surprise, there is great attention to the subtlety of detail just as with this work in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Little tics, stance, how he holds his hands, his glass – or bottle – while drinking, the cigarettes (Side Note: McConaughey took this little touch from watching his own father.) just make Kenny pop so that the character reaches a point as being as over the top explosive as Kenny’s personality. Having said that, while necessary and effective to the character and story, it does reach a point in several scenes where one sits in the audience and goes “enough already.”
Not to be missed is a key scene involving McConaughey’s Wells and a tiger. And yes, no CGI here. It’s a real tiger McConaughey is touching. Not only does it add to the “insanity” of Kenny wells, but ratchets up the tension from a frenetic business standpoint in the story.
As a perfect contrast to McConaughey’s Kenny Wells, as Michael Acosta, Edgar Ramirez dazzles with a suave debonair flair. Then take him into the jungle and when trudging the trees, mucking in mud, getting rain poured on him, he immediately calls to mind the essence of Clark Gable in films like “Red Dust”, “Mogambo” and even “Boom Town.” On Ramirez’ his first shot on screen and entry into a luxury hotel, elegant is word that immediately springs to mind. In terms of story and emotional beats, Ramirez is mesmerizing with tacit strength, yet thanks to that taciturn and calm nature creates an ambiguity that swirls around Acosta which then carries through the entire film, always casting a hint of doubt as to his knowledge and motives. Reminds me of Ramirez’ work in “Point Break” as Bodhi; a man of few words, also with another agenda.
Bryce Dallas Howard brings real heart to the film. With much less screen time or dialogue than that of either McConaughey or Ramirez, just her smile as Kay carries and buoys not only Kenny Wells and his bankrupt boys through thick and thin, but the audience as well. But then check out a NYC party scene and a “raccoon toast’ to Corey Stoll’s Brian. Talk about slick delivery. Mic drop!
Nice touches in casting are Stacey Keach, Bruce Greenwood and Craig T. Nelson with each adding a depth and legitimacy to the story as a whole and to the idea of age old business, and dream, of digging for gold.
Written by Patrick Massett and John Zinman, GOLD digs deep, giving context as to how the financial end of the prospecting and mining business works and how mining is actually done. With my own rudimentary knowledge of mining, having been to the Kingman mines in Arizona, the script served to not only buttress what I already know, but expanded it tenfold and will serve as an interesting eye-opener to the audience as a whole. Aware of the real life Bre-X scandal and regulatory mining changes that resulted, I was curious to see how Massett and Zinman would craft this adaptation and am not disappointed. Moving the setting from Canada to Reno, Nevada was a smart scripting move as it feeds into the whole gambling mentality, and prospecting/mining is gambling. Structurally, GOLD is well extremely well crafted. Characters are flushed out, three-dimensional and textured. There is, however, a bit of a disconnect and confusion in the structure as we hear Kenny’s voice-overs but it takes more than half the film before we discover these aren’t ramblings, but instead, an interrogation with the FBI and SEC. Catches the audience off-guard and momentarily takes one out of the story. Playing with Acosta’s storyline and the idea of “is he or isn’t he dead”, Massett and Zinman feed the audience’s curiosity over who’s pulling the wool over whose eyes. It’s a delicious undercurrent that really takes hold in the third act.
Directed by Stephen Gaghan, GOLD is a showcase for mania as only Matthew McConaughey can do. But Gaghan smartly brings in cinematographer and Robert Elswit and editors Douglas Criss and Rick Grayson to shape the film around that performance. Elswit’s lensing is nothing short of gorgeous, particularly given the film was shot in the pristine and beauteous green jungles and mountains of Thailand. (A note though: There were two scenes which were blurred in my screening. Unknown if that’s the actual film or projection, it is still distracting.) Contrasting the greens of Thailand (which coincidentally has the metaphoric idea of money) with the dark of a Reno-based bar/restaurant serving as an office to down-on-his-luck Kenny Wells or the sickly yellow tones of light and shadow as Kenny is falling either into a drunken stupor or into bankruptcy is emotionally arresting. Very effective use of light comes with glaring bright light and close-ups while in cars or on Kenny’s exiting after Acosta disappears which is then contrasted with the inky glittering night of a similar scene done in close-up or the hand held frenzy as Kenny and Kay appear at the Waldorf Astoria for the IPO party. Hand held work is crucial to this film, be it to capture the delirium of “frenzied moments” and the energy of the chase, of the success, or the agony of defeat. Some of the most intense and beautiful lensing is actually done during monsoons, capturing all the wind, rain and mud, men slipping and sliding, giving another layer of authenticity to the film.
Equally appreciated is Gaghan’s visual depictions of the basic lo budget/no budget mining operation. And thanks to the editing sequences melding the mining with the rains with the delivery of assay reports, we feel the tension and anticipation just waiting for Wells and Acosta to strike gold.
Finding a palpable balance between sincerity and satire, GOLD is just another example of where the truth is stranger than fiction. The fact that GOLD ends leaving huge questions for all is as tension-filled and fun as sitting at the slot machine wondering if you’re gonna hit with the next pull.
Directed by Stephen Gaghan
Written by Patrick Massett and John Zinman
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard