Popping his eyes, twisting or pursing his mouth, grinning like an idiot, Matthew McConaughey gives a performance of untrammelled rhetorical bombast in Gold. It’s fantastic to watch, a flashy turn that’s more endearing than otherwise, but it demands so much from the viewer it’s exhausting. You have to figure out if McConaughey is hamming it up to boost a sordid tale of greed and naked ambition, if his character, Kenny Wells, is naturally flamboyant—or if Kenny is putting on a big act to charm the pants off people, including himself.
I think it’s a combination of the last two things—the guy is an extroverted huckster who’s bought into the myth of his charisma, but who has lost his moorings, perpetuating his outrageous persona. He may or may not be a con man, but he’s certainly a narcissist who has conned himself. In his few moments of downtime, when he pauses to be reflective, he is un-extraordinary.
The miracle is that, in deliberately uglifying himself for the part, McConaughey sacrificed not an ounce of charm. The sometime blond Adonis, who was captivatingly lean and drawn in True Detective (2014), shows up in Gold with a balding pate, an unsightly pot belly, and a jutting left incisor. (He’s like a more florid and energetic version of Christian Bale’s scam artist in American Hustle.) Kenny’s longtime girlfriend Kay—played by Bryce Dallas Howard as a good-hearted, long-suffering naif—is out of Kenny’s class when it comes to looks, but she’s clearly never recovered from her initial bedazzlement by him.
If Kenny were operating in mid-Victorian England, he’d be labeled Dickensian. Instead, Stephen Gaghan’s movie, a moral fable even more opaque than The Wolf of Wall Street, unfolds intitially in 1980s America. The son of a respected Nevada prospector, long dead, whose skills and integrity he hasn’t inherited, Kenny has the guile to team up with a brilliant geologist, Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramírez)—saturnine and dangerous—and finances a mining expedition to the Indonesian jungle. Looking on like a freeloader while Acosta and his team graft in the muck for gold, Kenny is felled for a couple of weeks by malaria. On recovery, he learns that Acosta has hit pay dirt.
Kenny gets successively entangled with a Wall Street firm and the Indonesian government, each as trustworthy as the other. When the balloon goes up, as it must, the audience is left to figure out if Kenny is much dumber than he seems or complicit in a mega-billion grift.
Written by Patrick Massett and John Zinman, who were Inspired by the 1993 Bre-X mining scandal, Gold fulfills the promise Gaghan showed as a director of talky masculine intrigues and eruptive action scenes in Syriana, but it’s much less urgent or consequential than that 2005 George Clooney thriller. As a vehicle for McConaughey’s calculated showboating, it’s beguiling, but in these troubled times it feels a little indulgent.
Gold is in US theaters now.