Before I left for the cinema, I checked Rotten Tomatoes. They had this movie rated at 41% critics/ 51% fans. Normally, that’s a pretty good sign to avoid a film, but I’m a fan of some of those reality TV shows about gold mining, and of Matthew McConaughey, so I ignored them all and went anyway.
Despite McConaughey’s fantastic performance, the ratings turned out to be mostly right. As a screenwriter, I’m glad I still went, though. I always say we can learn as much, if not more, from films that aren’t perfect than from those that are. ‘Gold’ reinforced for me a very important lesson: heroes that don’t learn anything leave an audience unfulfilled.
First, a quick summary of the movie (skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid these spoilers):
The hero in Gold, Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) has inherited his family’s mining company, only to run it into the ground (pun intended). In a last ditch effort to save it, he teams up with a discredited gold prospector, Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) to hunt for gold in the jungles of Indonesia. When they strike it rich, the company goes public and they all make a fortune. It’s peaches and cream for Kenny and his loving wife Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) until the inevitable lure of women and money creates a rift between the money hungry husband and the salt-of-the-earth wife. But Kenny seems to get on just fine without her, until his biggest competitor convinces Indonesia’s president to nationalise Kenny’s company. Penniless, Kenny returns to his ex-wife only to discover she’s dating someone else. Bummer. In another desperate effort to save his company, Kenny and Michael agree to give Indonesia’s president’s son 85%. Everyone’s happy! That is until it’s discovered Acosta faked the gold results. There is no gold! The company fails, Acosta goes missing and Kenny is left with nothing again. Poor Kenny goes back to his ex-wife, AGAIN, tail between his legs, hoping for consolation. What he gets is a check in the mail from the AWOL Acosta for $84 million. Role credits.
First of all, kudos to Patrick Massett, John Zinman for even getting the story on the screen. Writing a screenplay is a heck of a lot of work, and out of the thousands that are written every year, very few get made. Forgive me for a little Monday-morning quarterbacking. My goal is to learn and improve as a screenwriter.
Ok, disclaimer out of the way.
On the surface, this ‘inspired by true events’ story is fascinating. I can see why the producers were sold on the idea. It embodies the American dream of the scrappy underdog who works his ass off, and builds a fortune from nothing. He gets knocked down, not once, but twice, and still ends up on his feet. The problem is, Kenny doesn’t come out of the storm having learned a valuable lesson that the audience can take away with them. He doesn’t change; he doesn’t arc — so I don’t care.
Now, not all heroes have to change. Matt Damon in The Martian didn’t change and people loved that. James Bond (traditionally) and most superheroes don’t change during a film and we know how much money those movies make. But this isn’t that kind of a movie.
This guy was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking man who was loved by a sweet wife and just wanted to save his daddy’s company. He gave his loyalty to a man he hardly knew and was betrayed. When he was rich, it was fun and he deserved it, but he went too far and lost the love of his life. These are all the ingredients you need to deliver an emotionally satisfying film – if only they’re properly arced – but they never are.
Had he confessed to the woman he loved that money wasn’t everything (hopefully in a non-cliché way), maybe then he would have deserved his reward. Had he unwaveringly believed in the partner they say betrayed him and NOT given him up to the feds, then maybe he would have earned that money.
Instead, we have a hero in the beginning of the film that believed in not giving up, but in the end does give up, and yet he gets rewarded anyway. The money just falls in his lap.
And we’re kinda led to believe that his boomerang relationship with his wife will kick off again into happily ever after.
That’s not the kind of arc audiences want to see.
So my screenwriting lesson from watching ‘Gold’ was this: make sure your hero learns their lesson (unless they’re a tragic hero).
When they do, their reward will feel well deserved.