If Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, with its multi-stranded plot and handheld-camera style, was obviously modeled after Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, then the filmmaker’s latest, Gold, appears to take Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street as its source of inspiration. This is evident in the film’s based-on-real-events account of prospectors making a killing on the stock market after discovering a gold mine in Indonesia, as well as in the casting of Matthew McConaughey—who made a cameo in Scorsese’s film as the stock-market shark who inspired Jordan Belfort blithely debaucherous career path—as the gold-digging Kenny Wells. The Wolf of Wall Street’s influence can even be seen in the breezy tone Gaghan adopts, one that uses a combination of hyperactive camera movements and a predominantly post-punk and alternative-rock soundtrack to exult in the thrill of the chase, bask in Kenny’s newfound privilege as a result of his discovery, and just generally swim in a sense of amorality toward the outright corruption the film depicts.
As was also the case with Syriana, Gold never finds an identity of its own, instead always feeling like a secondhand Scorsese rip-off. But the problems with the film run deeper than stylistic derivativeness. As in Syriana, the film’s screenplay, by Patrick Massett and John Zinman, exhibits a lack of interest in characters as three-dimensional people beyond their function in making larger thematic points. This failing is made even worse in the case of Gold because, unlike The Wolf of Wall Street and Syriana, the story of Kenny Wells and, to a lesser extent, his South American second-in-command, geologist Michael Acosta (Édgar Ramírez), isn’t jostling for attention with four or five other different storylines. The filmmakers seem less interested in exploring these two main characters than in simply chronicling a process narrative while striking a consistently flip attitude toward their material.
Gold is just another standard rise-and-fall account of the American dream, one in which down-in-the-dumps characters believe in little more than making a lot of money in order to be successful, a notion that’s eventually disproved in brutal fashion after a temporary period of raging success. Unlike even Belfort, who at least actively participated in the stockbroking he did, Kenny Wells isn’t even an honest beneficiary of his own success, only coming up with the idea to venture out into Indonesia to dig for gold, leaving Acosta and plenty of Indonesian natives to do all the hard work while he, at one point, is waylaid by malaria for weeks. Perhaps that’s meant to be the subversive joke of Gaghan’s film: daring us to celebrate the exploits of a man who barely did anything to achieve the meteoric success he temporarily gains. But McConaughey brings so much of his usual fast-talking energy to the role that the damning irony carries less of a sting than it should.
Gold reveals itself to be as much about a man’s macho self-deception as it is about the corrupting effects of capitalism, especially as the revelations about the truth of the gold Wells and Acosta discovered in Indonesia begin to surface. This is the closest the filmmakers come to finding an interesting angle on this well-worn material. Even then, it leads to the most banal resolution possible: a be-good-to-your-loved-ones conclusion as hackneyed as the be-good-to-your-father final shot of Syriana. But then, that’s just par for the course for Gold, a film which finds no treasure of gleaming originality in its energetically told but crushingly clichéd anti-capitalist parable.