This is a weird movie. It seems the only reason it exists is because some creative champion – maybe McConaughey himself, who stars, maybe studio heads Bob and Harvey Weinstein, maybe director Stephen Gaghan – loved the archetypal idea of a man driven by ambition on the merest of whims who everyone else thinks is crazy but who turns out to be right all along.
As such it’s very much an actor’s piece by McConaughey, stepping further still away from his leaning-against-things-in-romantic-comedies era. He gets to play a lovable rogue with cigarette firmly planted between his teeth, fake paunch and a balding headpiece that all looks very little like McConaughey himself but exudes the same honeyed, silver-tongued charm we associate with him as a person , not just an actor.
He’s also part of a well-constructed production design. All sweaty and stressed and with cigarette ash flaking across his cheap sports jackets and colourful polos, the late 80s setting is likewise bought to life in the fashions, cars, colour palette and more.
McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a man who inherits a successful mining company that falls on harder and harder economic times until he sees a big strike he feels like he has to follow in, of all places, a dream. He stakes everything on the company to travel to deepest, darkest Indonesia, team up with successful local prospector Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) and search for the vein of gold he’s convinced fills the ground under the dense jungle in a river valley.
Most of the first half deals with the aftermath and administration of Kenny and Michael finding and extracting the gold, then the financial orgy of investor action that ensues, seeing them drive by limo to attend high powered meetings with New York power brokers, accept industry awards and live large.
From there it leads into a couple of different strands. Part of the story is a fable about how money so often costs the souls of those who come by it – even as he and his sweet, down-home and devoted girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) enjoy the good life it drives fault lines through their relationship.
And there’s the final big twist that seems to be a comment on how power and greed can blind us all to the realities in the world. There’s a parallel in the 2008 global financial crash, when bankers and investors were enjoying such historic returns and the system was swimming with so much cheap money everyone ignored the house of cards it was all built on.
Other than that, McConaughey has the charisma to keep you interested in what seems to be a strange choice of story for a Hollywood movie.