The Bre-X scandal gets an understated retelling

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

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3 out of 5

Gold is a perfectly competent high-brow drama, the kind that was common years ago but now only appears during awards season.

Loosely based on the Bre-X mining scandal (the less you know or remember about it, the better), Gold revolves around Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey), a prospector who has fallen in hard times following the 1980 recession. Without investors (or even an office — he works from a booth at a bar), Wells puts all his resources in pursuit of a gold mine deep in the Indonesian jungle.

Alongside geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez, Carlos), Wells stops short of doing the digging himself. On a shoestring budget, the two find what might be one of the world’s biggest gold mines. But far from solving all their problems, the discovery brings new ones — namely Wall Street sharks trying to take control of the pit.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Gold. McConaughey’s Kenny Wells is a good, multidimensional character, neither a hero or a villain. Wells has all-consuming passions and he doesn’t do anything half-assedly: he works hard and plays hard. We seldom see him without a smoke dangling from his mouth or a glass of scotch (neat) in his right hand. Functional alcoholic and all, Kenny gets things done and his mistakes are reasonable. The movie is not preachy.

Gold is no Wolf of Wall Street either: it keeps the nihilism in check. Unlike that Scorsese movie, Gold’s characters get their personal fulfillment in their jobs, never mind how grueling and frustrating it can get. The money is a bonus.

Director Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) does good work bringing the mining business to the screen and making it cinematic (the Indonesian section of the film is stunning). The film is borderline didactic and real-life events are incorporated naturally — Indonesian dictator Suharto is the big wild card — and even the obligatory romantic subplot takes a couple of non-traditional turns. Gaghan does a good job demonstrating the blinding power of money: even the audience falls for the windfall act, making the inevitable fall steeper.

I worry that Gold lacks the “wow” factor: all of its virtues (great acting, competent storytelling, a functional understanding of the mining industry) are low-key, and while that should please discerning viewers it may make the movie dull for an over-stimulated, desensitized mass audience. McConaughey is the only selling point and as good as he has become, actors alone can’t open movies these days (as seen in his previous film, Free State of Jones).

Ultimately, Gold is about loyalty and how it’s a more valuable commodity than, uh, you know. The challenge is to recognize it and nurture it. It’s classic American simplification, but there are worse messages to peddle.