A universe away from the German bounty hunter roaming the Old West in "Django Unchained," the European adventurers in "Gold" hail from a more traditional playbook. Director Thomas Arsland's watchable oater only maintains a uniqueness for the sheer presence of German characters involved in a plight most commonly associated with American explorers. But as gold rush expeditions go, this one's just another perilous outing we've seen countless times before, competently realized in parts but lacking ingenuity at every turn.
Anchored by a strong lead performance by "Barbara" star Nina Hoss as the wandering Emily, "Gold" holds some interest for the way it focuses on a cocksure female adventurer without entirely upending the formula, but that's a feat of dubious merit. Easily begging comparison to Kelly Reichardt's revisionist western "Meek's Cutoff," Arland's movie looks pedestrian in the shadow of the earlier work. Sticking to familiar ground, Arsland revises next to nothing.
The story is as simple as they come: A group of German settlers respond to the call by a confident expedition leader (Peter Kurth) willing to take them from the end of a railway line in the Pacific Northwest to the legendary goldfields of Dawson several thousand miles away. Naturally, the journey requires extreme physical investment and plenty of dangers, from tired horses to the suspicious motives of their leader. While never fully utilized, the group is a colorful one: In addition to Emily, a Chicago transplant perpetually on her own for mysterious reasons, there's an overconfident journalist (Uwe Bom), an eccentric banjo player (Lars Rudolph), an elderly couple bound to create physical complications and a handsome loner (Marko Mandic) with whom Emily may share a mutual attraction. Their numbers dwindle faster than you can say Agatha Christie, the situation turns dire with continuing predictability.
While their personalities contain enough depth to create some intrigue about the group's fate, "Gold" never takes them anywhere worth going. A subplot involving hitmen chasing the group for unknown reasons barely comes together before it dissipates; other conundrums range from tired horses to unexpected encounters with hunting traps. "Gold" gains some ground whenever it raises the stakes, venturing into scarier territory with a bloody emergency procedure halfway through intended to rescue one of their fallen comrades, but that incident alone stands out as an obvious bid to provoke strong reactions.
Whenever the movie foregrounds its visuals, "Gold" holds onto a stark atmosphere that places it line with the finest precedents the director clearly had in mind (a dash of Peckinpah by way of John Ford, I reckon). But neither the gloriously photographed open desert vistas nor the bleak events taking place within them can rescue a severely underwritten screenplay that reeks of amateurism whenever any of the characters speak up. ("This used to be a real quiet place in the old days," says one small town local early on, the first sign of the cliché bombardment to come). A wannabe Morricone soundtrack of staccato electric guitar riffs draws out the movie's vain aspirations. There's a certain abstract quality to outdoor survival stories that "Gold" manages to bring into play, but Arsland resists playing around with it.
More than anything else, "Gold" lacks a natural hook. The brilliance of "Meek's Cutoff" emerged from the way it pushed against the genre's boundaries at nearly every turn, from the wise Native American captive whose words fell on deaf ears to the emergence of Michelle Williams' character as the group's true leader. "Gold" contains similar ingredients without complicating them. Operating in a genre that has gone through multiple eras of transition and still contains broad possibilities to this day, it squeezes them into a usual routine.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Facing a mixed reception at the Berlin International Film Festival where it's premiering in competition, the movie's best odds are to land with a distributor that can play it up in ancillary markets. Theatrical prospects are viable in the short-term, but the movie's quality issues may keep it from generating too much buzz in the marketplace.