Thursday, May 18, 2017

Redboxing: Gold & War on Everyone

by Rob DiCristino
This week, we celebrate corruption, apathy, ignorance, and rage. It’s fun!

Gold (2016, Dir. Stephen Gaghan)
While Gold may at first appear to be a swashbuckling adventure film in the tradition of Romancing the Stone or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, it’s actually more of a cousin to The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short, stories about how dimwitted hubris is so often propped up by unregulated capitalism and greed. Loosely based on the 1993 Bre-X Minerals mining scandal, Gold follows the misadventures of Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey), heir to his father’s modest prospecting operation. After dad (Craig T. Nelson) dies and the business hits the skids, Kenny plans a Hail Mary expedition with geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez), whose theories about a great untapped gold mine in Indonesia have been laughed-off by the rest of the scientific community. But not by Kenny. He sees in Acosta the same unappreciated genius he sees in himself – the kind of blustering, haphazard madness we celebrate in scientists and condemn in businesspeople. That madness pays off when Acosta strikes big, and suddenly all of Wall Street is celebrating Kenny as a visionary.

Gold is the kind of prestige project that studios use as leverage, passing it back and forth with directors (Michael Mann, Spike Lee) and actors (Christian Bale) attaching and detaching as the development process goes on. By the time the actual film is made, it’s often sanded-down, stripped of the writer’s distinct voice and given a new one by producers and executives. Gold may very well have begun life as a complex character study on the relationship between business and ethics, but it ended up as little more than another McConaughey vehicle. He’s a great movie star, for sure, but his performances require so much time and compromise that they often leave little else to play with. That’s certainly the case here. He does his thing (still playing smarmy shit-eater like a pro), but there’s not much depth or pathos to the character outside of “snake oil salesman with a beer belly.” Nor does the film spend enough time with characters like Kenny’s Ride or Die Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) or opportunistic banker Brian (Corey Stoll) to really forge meaningful contrasts between them. Everyone just lives in McConaughey’s world, which ends up being pretty dull.

Still, Gold is an interesting enough take on the “fake it till you make it” attitude that has (alarmingly) defined our economic infrastructure for generations. This is the story of inexperienced and undisciplined speculators taking giant risks and building an elaborate house of cards that comes crashing down around them. But the storytelling devils are in the details: That Kenny’s inherent ignorance gives way to accidental success undercuts any greater deconstruction of the means by which he prospers. He’s just the guy dumb enough to (literally) climb in the tiger’s pen and give it a pat on the head. He’s never asked to compromise anything or cross any meaningful thresholds he wasn’t willing to cross before the story began, and the film never really judges him for his actions (in fact, he’s ultimately rewarded for his industry). More time with Acosta or a repositioning of FBI Agent Jennings (Toby Kebbell) might have given us more insight into an ultimate point, but Gold ends up a cautionary tale without a clear lesson.

War on Everyone (2016, Dir. John Michael McDonah)
Speaking of genre traditions, the British crime comedy and the buddy cop film join forces in John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone. Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña star as Detectives Monroe and Bolaño (respectively), a pair of foul-mouthed corrupt cops swinging dicks and running scams all over Albuquerque. Bolaño enjoys a happy (if dysfunctional) home life with Delores (Stephanie Sigman) and their two sons, while Monroe’s encounter with the beautiful Jackie (Tessa Thompson, who needs to be in everything) pushes him to consider settling down himself. The partners are thrust into High-Octane Action when they inadvertently cross paths with dignitary-turned-crime-boss Lord James Mangan (Theo James) and his wacky sidekick Russell (Caleb Landry Jones), forcing The Chief (Paul Reiser, for some reason) to strip them of their badges and all their precious power. On tilt and without influence for the first time in their careers, the pair resolves to bring Mangan down and get back the (stolen) money that was (not) rightfully theirs.

That’s the general gist of it, anyway. It doesn’t really matter. War on Everyone uses a familiar genre structure as a frame on which to hang a mean-spirited, subversive, and nihilistic black comedy. It’s Archer meets Lethal Weapon, In Bruges meets Starsky & Hutch. Guy Ritchie meets Shane Black. You get it. It’s a film delighted by its own political incorrectness, one that gleefully celebrates its erudite characters as they spout off esoteric trivia and poke fun at the naïve worldviews of the lesser beings they manipulate every day. It takes multiple narrative detours for dance numbers, semantic arguments, and even a tennis match with Muslim women in veils. It gives smug and self-satisfied answers to existential questions and treats romantic relationships as if they were nothing more than the businesslike exchange of bodily fluids. The women in War on Everyone are about as fleshed-out and sympathetic as the men (as in not very), and often just as crass and maladjusted.

All of this would be unforgivably irritating were War on Everyone not also written, directed, edited, and performed with a super-heroic level of confidence and wit. I’m not familiar with McDonagh’s other films (Calvary and The Guard among them), but this one is the tits for viewers with the right kind of eyes. Skarsgård and Peña are, frankly, fucking great in these roles, both seeming to understand the hero cop tropes they’re spinning enough to do something a bit unexpected with them. There’s a lived-in feel to each character that shows how game the actors were to mess around. They’re not human beings, of course – there’s no trace of a heart or soul anywhere in this film – but that seems to be McDonagh’s (who also wrote the screenplay) intention. We find ourselves cheering on these horrible criminals as they betray the public trust for their own personal gain. Why shouldn’t we? Life and death, good and evil, right and wrong – they’re just words, McDonagh argues, and the burden of proving otherwise rests on our shoulders, not his.


  1. I was War on Everyone at a festival last year and had a blast with it (the crowd also ate it up, which surely enhanced it). Especially Skarsgård with his odd delivery and strange forward-leaning posture steals the show.

    And not to be a dick about it, but the writer-director's name is McDonagh. Calvary and The Guard are also both excellent, but very different from each other. The Guard shares some DNA with War on Everyone, Calvary emphatically does not.

  2. For the love of God watch Calvary! As a second generation Irishman, John Michael McDonagh nails Irish cynicism & our dark sense of humo(u)r. Loved the Guard & War on Everyone too but Calvary is a masterpiece.