by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday January 27, 2017

Matthew McConaughey and Edgar Ramírez star in 'Gold'
Matthew McConaughey and Edgar Ramírez star in 'Gold'   

Stephen Gaghan has some experience telling complicated stories that unfold, at least in part, in strange nations with extreme physical settings and involve complex interpersonal and geopolitical dynamics; after all he wrote and directed "Syriana" (2005) and is the screenwriter of "Traffic" (2000).

With "Gold" he leaves the writing to Patrick Massett and John Zinman, but you still feel his interest in exotic climes and bright, if sharp-edged, people who are interesting to watch but who seem like they could present an immediate danger to themselves and others. He also, improbably enough, explores the realm of male friendship, making "Gold" part thriller and part buddy movie.

Based (to some degree, at least) on actual events (though set five years earlier than the events in question actually happened), the film follows a desperate, driven, and drunken mining company owner named Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) along a downward trajectory until he falls asleep after drinking too much, has a dream about Gold in Indonesia and a geologist he'd met only briefly, and then, upon waking up, decides -- as dreamers do -- to pawn some more of his wife's (Bryce Dallas Howard) jewelry, buy a ticket, and chase that phantom vision, convinced it speaks of something real and tangible.

Making his way to Indonesia, Kenny tracks down the geologist he's thinking of, a celebrity in the field named Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramrez). He seems half-crazy and more than a little moth-eaten, but something about his fervent conviction speaks to Acosta -- and why shouldn't it? Acosta, despite his fame for having zeroed in on a major copper find, is getting desperate, too, for his next big thing. Together the two take a trip into the jungle, where Acosta points out a spot he's convinced will yield gold, if only the two of them can get the backing they need to set up a core sampling operation.

It takes a lot of gumption and a lot of physical strength; Kenny zips back and forth between Indonesia and Nevada, making calls, making connections, raising money, and then helping to supervise operations int he field before he's brought low by a case of malaria. When he recovers, it's to the good news that Acosta's hunch has panned out (so to speak), and they are literally sitting on billions of dollars worth of gold.

That, of course, is when things start to go sideways. First a Wall Street film pokes its nose into their dealings, offering to provide substantial capital but then also drawing in a big name (and cold-blooded shark, played with ruthless lan by Bruce Greenwood) from the world of international mineral wealth. When he's offered an insulting buy-out deal --a lot of money, no naming rights -- the proud and idealistic Wells takes a powder, setting into motion a power struggle that pitches himself and Acosta against Wall Street players and national governments. Plucky, lucky, and unwilling to give up, Wells and Acosta actually do hatch a plan to defend their interests -- though the dangers they face, and the kinks in the road ahead, mount up with ever-greater intensity.

For a thriller, "Gold" is largely lacking in thrills. Shocks, yes -- not the least of which is Wells' own flesh as he unselfconsciously (and a little too frequently) shucks his kit and gives us an eyeful. (Gaghan's camera doesn't turn away, but greedily, laughingly drinks it up; one's not sure whether what's going on here is fat shaming or some kind of celebration in Wells' frat boy-like, and almost delusional, self-assurance -- or is it merely unconcern?) Eventually, things get so our of hand that the FBI comes calling, and the penny drops that Wells' narration has been part of an extended flashback... but from what point of time, and under what circumstances?

If anything will cement the impression that McConaughey's Oscar win -- well earned for "Dallas Buyers Club" but unimaginable for just about any other role except perhaps, on a good day, "Mud" -- was more the result of a perfect storm of forces colliding (not to mention the gauntness he achieved for the role) than sheer ability on his own part, it's his performance here. It's good, but it's not without its flaws; it's certainly not great, and that's all the more obvious when McConaughey shares the screen with Ramrez, who is great -- or at least, has been in his projects so far.

Here, Ramrez turns in a performance that's just enough swagger, and just enough clueless doubt. He's magnetic and, in certain ways, vulnerable; you know that the scrappy, blithering Wells will survive just about anything in the way that certain people, not overly bright but unstoppable all the same, seem to be all but indestructible. With Acosta, you're never quite sure but that his stony, tough exterior won't prove as friable as a diamond when struck the right way. The two share a chemistry that's more bro than brio... certainly more bro than hero... but it's something one believes in all the same.

The film is a different story. Is this meant to be a love story? (Evidently not; Wells' wife Kate storms out on him once she realizes that the Wall Street guys view him as a sitting duck.) Is it a drama? Is it, in some impenetrably deadpan fashion, a comedy? Movies of this ilk -- think "War Dogs" for a recent example -- are fueled by testosterone but dream of more than speedy traverse over land. They want to gather up enough force -- and enough pure vision -- to take wing and fly. That doesn't happen here. Mercurial this film may be, and shiny in spots, but all that glitters is not "Gold."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.