Transformations are everything in cinema, and recognizable physical changes often yield major results. Think of an actor so committed to their role they’ll starve themselves (Christian Bale, Matt Damon) or pack on the pounds (Robert De Niro, Charlize Theron) in order to disappear into a part. The drastic alterations (sometimes know as Oscar bait performances in cynical circles) shock and usually compel the viewer to sit up and lean in closer. An actor pushing the boundaries of physical transformation lately is Matthew McConaughey, who emaciated himself for “Dallas Buyers Club” (and won an Academy prize), and impressed with his extremely gaunt form in “True Detective.”
But what happens when drastic bodily change fails to impress thanks to a flabby movie that repels the audience instead of drawing them in? This must be the frustration McConaughey feels after watching “Gold,” an unattractive bore of a movie that sifts around aimlessly and never finds an ounce of treasure along its unadventurous expedition. An uninspired rehash of masculine rise and fall narratives, director/writer Stephen Gaghan’s sophomore effort is a turgid misfire that never crystallizes. Like “The Wolf Of Wall Street” set in the mineral trade minus a motivating vitality, the lethargic “Gold” doesn’t even possesses the lurid joys of cinematic sleazebags and their wild exploits.
Obsession fuels this type of narrative and there’s arguably even a Hergoz-ian subgenre of manic ambitions in the jungle. But if Gaghan’s “Gold” is an attempt to put a contemporary spin on, say, “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” its climb up the mountains show little prospects from the jump. Fixation is the key element of the maverick character of Kenny Wells (a repugnant McConaughey in shape and mien), an entrepreneur and gold prospector with his ear to the ground, hooked on a feeling that riches are just around the corner. Raised in the mining industry, Wells plays outside the rules and catches the gold rush fever after his dad passes. But as the family business starts to go under, the whiskey-sozzled businessman becomes desperate for a lucky break. Fortune arrives in the form of an experienced geologist (Edgar Ramirez) and this odd couple set off on a journey to unearth bullion in the uncharted jungle of Indonesia. Eventually his rogue approach shakes up Wall Street, but his wealthy deposits don’t last long.
All too familiar, “Gold” resembles a reach-exceeding-grasp gambling movie: a three-time loser and risk-taking addict is down and out, but believes his luck can turn around with just one more score. You know how that story turns out — a lot of booze, drugs, women — there’s little surprise here and the film’s unimpressive framing device, which tells the movie essentially in flashback, brings on early fatigue. For its female representation, Bryce Dallas Howard plays a thankless ornament of a girlfriend.
Directed without much personality, holding no nuggets of insight to any character, the indistinct “Gold” trudges along hitting all the beats you’d expect. There’s hits, misses, big scores, massive failures and then maybe a little bit of redemption in the end. Sure, countless movies successfully feature this arc, but the undistinguished “Gold” never strikes it rich. A project that’s been around the block — Paul Haggis once put his pen to it, Michael Mann and then Spike Lee were attached to direct and Christian Bale was once set to star — one can understand the appeal and why an A-list star like McConaughey signed on. But the experiment fails. Wells is bloated and greasy; a disgusting ashtray of a person you can’t root for at all. The film features a similar aesthetic.
Shot by the great Robert Elswit on what looks like textured celluloid, there’s a dark, grubby quality to the light that presumably is meant to work thematically with the increasingly run-down McConaughey, but the lensing just ends up making an unpleasant character appear even less palatable. The movie often wants to be in the vein of Martin Scorsese or Paul Thomas Anderson, zipping around with party elements and its swaggery rock music. Yet, possibly the most egregious element is the film’s ill-conceived, ill-employed soundtrack. The Pixies, Styx, Iggy Pop, Richard and Linda Thompson, Zayde Wolf and a slew of modern indie-rock bands are employed with little rhyme or reason. It’s as if Gaghan has a great record collection at home, but not one inkling of how to use appropriate music on screen.
One must feel for McConaughey. The actor suffers the indignity of playing repulsive on the inside and outside with nothing to show for it. Sweaty and gross, just like the character, the actor put on an abundance of weight and sports an unflattering bald cap (the lines of which are sometimes visible), all in the name of a film that’s unworthy of his various talents. The McConaissance finds no purchase here. Mining for something adventurous and coming up empty handed, ultimately the dramatically-challenged “Gold” digs for something fiery and collects zero treasure along the way. [D+]