With the sudden death of his father, fourth-generation prospector Kenny Wells sees the family business, Washoe Mining, rapidly decline and him out of business. But ambitious Kenny has a dream, a vivid vision that promises mountains of brilliant and pure gold in the lush jungles of remote Indonesia; an aspiration which the well-known, yet still unlucky geologist Michael Acosta shares. Before long, down-on-his-luck Kenny will convince the eager geologist to become his partner and set off on an adventure deep into uncharted territory, while in the meantime, he would hunt for investors. Unfortunately though, as the risky expedition begins without a single speck of gold or the promise of it on the horizon, disease and failure will begin to threaten the short-lived dream. However, is it indeed an intriguingly bold and reckless fantasy?
Reno, Nevada. 1981.Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) is talking to his girlfriend, Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) in his father's mining company, named Washoe. He explains how to mine for gold, using her purse. First he digs down with his hand and pulls out a nickel to simulate nickel; then comes up with a dime to simulate silver; then produces a gold watch and tells her what they're looking for is gold. She is ecstatic about the gift.Six years later. Kenny's father has just passed away and he is now doing business out of a bar that Kay works at. He calls people about investing in a new mining expenditure but no one bites. Next, he goes to a capitol group to meet with a man named Clive Colson. Two bankers greet him instead and lead him to a conference room. They tell him Clive was tied up in a meeting. Kenny is insistent that he was supposed to meet with Clive and they tell him if he was supposed to meet with Clive, it would have happened. Kenny delivers the same pitch hes made on the phone, telling them about properties he will set up sites at, with geological reports suggesting they could produce gold. They pass on each one, pointing out that his company has a practical value of zero and he has a huge debt load. They refuse to make him any offer. Kenny demands to speak with Clive, pointing out that his father put Clive on the map and built their bank. They tell Kenny that he's not his father.Kenny returns to his small home with his pile of bills. He continues making pitches over the phone, looking for investors for his corporation Washoe. He has no success. His company is trading at four cents a share.We now see Kenny in present day (years after the story we've been watching) being questioned by Jennings (Toby Kebell). He continues his tale and we return to Kay and Kenny talking in his home. Kenny goes to sleep and dreams of an Indonesian jungle. He explains, in narration to Jennings, that he had met a man named Michael Acosta years earlier and wanted to get into Indonesia to mine. We see him in Borneo, in September 1987, meeting with Michael (Edgar Ramírez) who is a geologist who knows all about where to dig in the country. Michael is friendly with the natives who are panning for gold; he has just discovered the largest copper mine in South Asia so everyone now wants his guidance.Michael tells a group of men, including Kenny, how he can detect where there will be mineralization citing pressure, heat, and time a theory he calls ring of fire. Kenny awakes from the dream, in 1993, and struggles to find Michael's contact info. He tells Kay he is going to be gone for a few days or maybe a week. He goes to a pawn shop and pawns a bunch of jewelry and Kay's watch to get enough cash to fly to Indonesia. He meets Michael in a hotel in Shangri-La. Michael admits that his theory about the ring of fire hasn't panned out but he knows there is gold there, even if he wasnt right about how to find it. Kenny wants them to prospect themselves, the way his father did. He tells Michael that if he directs where to dig, Kenny will come up the money. Michael invites Kenny to join him in the river the next morning.Kenny and Michael take a trip up the Busang River for hours, passing native tribesmen panning for gold. The two men hike through the jungle. Michael tells Kenny its taken 40 million years for all the geology to cook. They get to the top of the ridge and Michael points out a depression in the south bank which he suspects gold is.In the village, Michael tells Kenny that the lease on the property is held by a Canadian company that is willing to unload it but he hasn't been able to come up with the capital to develop the site. They also need money to line the pockets of the corrupt Indonesian government. Kenny says he will raise the money and writes down a contract on a napkin (this will come back to play later in the film). Michael agrees and they shake on it.Back in the States, Kenny compiles a team of salesmen to pitch the site to investors on the phone, like he used to do solo. They are more successful than he was and Kenny ends up with $267,000 in investments. Its not what Michael needs but its enough to start off with; if they end up finding gold, they can raise additional funds.Kay is upset that Kenny pawned her watch to get the plane ticket. He asks her to trust him and she says she does. Kenny flies back to the Shangri-La Hotel in Jakarta. Michael introduces him to the Minister of the Interior of Indonesia regarding their permit request for the Busang property. The minister asks why Michael thinks he can find what others before them could not. Michael tells him he thinks they were looking in the wrong place; the geology has convinced him that there is gold there. The minister is pompous and Kenny becomes short with him, offering a cash bribe to get him to agree. It works.Michael and Kenny survey the work site in the Busang Valley. A monsoon comes as everything is set up around the Southeast bank. Michael and Kenny take shelter in a site off the river. Time passes and the drilling hasn't turned up anything; and money is running out. Kenny then gets very sick with malaria and is close to dying.The workers now hold off on working, angry that the money to pay them has dried up. Michael finds the ill Kenny in their tent and tells him they haven't found any gold and the workers are leaving. Kenny begs Michael to convince them to stay but they wont listen to him; Kenny will have to do it. Despite being sick, Kenny talks to the workers. He makes a deal that they will provide a water purification system for their families in exchange for them staying on the job. He privately tells Michael that they have no more money and if they are going to find gold, it has to happen now.Kenny spends the next five weeks in a malarial haze while Michael keeps the work going. When his fever finally breaks, he learns that the workers had stayed and that they have hit a gold strike. Kenny jumps around in his underwear, excitedly, despite having been sick for so long.Back in the States, Kenny celebrates the gold mine with all the salesmen who had worked to raise the initial capital. He is now confident the stock will begin cooking. Kenny pulls Kay aside and asks what she thinks, telling her his success means nothing without her blessing. He is interrupted by a publisher of an investor magazine, The Gold Digger, which reaches half a million subscribers. He wants to write a story about Kenny's site in Busang.The stock of Kenny's company has gone up from four to 23 cents in one day and he suggests everyone buy shares because they go even higher. Kenny is now back at the capitol group he visited at the beginning of the film. Now Clive (Stacy Keach Jr.) is there alongside the bankers who work for him. Clive is eager in underwriting a private placement in Kenny's stock, raising a few million dollars. He cites that Kenny's father and him started out in business together which Kenny had tried bringing up earlier in the film. Kenny responds by requesting the banker that met with him initially go get him coffee, which he begrudgingly does. When the banker returns, Clive tells him Kenny has requested that the banker be available for him 24/7/365.Now Kenny's company becomes a huge stock and is featured on the cover of magazines as it continues to rise higher and higher, from its initial 4 cents to 6 dollars a share. Meanwhile the geological team is said to potentially yield over 10 million ounces of gold. Brian Woolf (Corey Stoll), a young banker at J.P. Morgan now wants to purchase the company. Kenny is flown first class to New York to meet with Brian, who pitches him the idea of teaming up with J.P. Morgan. When Kenny doesn't jump on the chance, Brian points out Kenny hasn't revealed a huge payload as leverage. Kenny tells Brian, he needs to know whats happening in Indonesia firsthand if he wants them to consider.A bunch of bankers travel to Busang with Kenny and are given a tour of the river where gold is being panned and the earth is being drilled and they are shown how the samples are sent down river to independent labs. The group then pans the river and finds a gold nugget which is all the convincing the bankers need. Back at the mining town, Kenny explains they're looking for a convex dome which will provide anywhere from 10 to 100 million ounces, collectively worth 30 billion dollars.J.P. Morgan now offers a public offering of his stock, Washoe Mining Corporation, on the New York Stock Exchange. When Kay gets back to the hotel in New York, she sees hundreds of flowers all over. She compliments Kenny's clothes and says success looks good on him. They kiss.Kenny rings the bell for the NYSE. The Washoe stock climbs from 23 dollars to 110 in one day. At a celebratory dinner, Kenny is informed of his massive net worth that he now splits between him and Michael. A woman, Rachel (Rachael Taylor) makes eyes at Kenny and spends the evening flirting with him, in front of Kay. She excuses herself to the bathroom and then requests Kenny and her leave. She overhears Brian telling the other bankers that Kenny is a joke but he got lucky enough to have a multi-billion dollar company, adding that theyll eventually out him. When she finds Kenny, he wants to stay at the party so Kay decides to go back to the hotel without him.When Kenny returns to the hotel, Kay is very unhappy with him, seemingly because he flirted with whom she called "Miss Pneumatic" right in front of her. He responds that the woman's breasts didnt even look that big. She tells him its not just the flirting but that hes making an ass of himself by not realizing they all think hes a fool. He tells her she's always been encouraging but has never believed in him; he asks if she even believes he knows what hes doing. Kay tells Kenny she loves him but the men at J.P. Morgan are going to break his heart. He tells her no one said she had to stick around to watch. She leaves.Kenny attends a party at an estate. He seems annoyed at how sleazy all the bankers are but Brian serves as a middle man, introducing Kenny to the others. Rachel is at the party and she and Kenny end up in the hot tub together, naked. A man from Barrick Gold introduces himself so Kenny steps out of the tub, completely nude. Kenny tells Rachel the man controls more gold than anybody on the planet; the man counters that the exception might be Kenny himself.Now Kenny is back at J.P. Morgan, yelling at Brian about a deal he's been offered. He screams that he founded the company by traversing "mud and shit" in Indonesia and is now being offered a minority partnership. Brian tells him that the man from Barrick Gold has more expertise and will bring everything home while Kenny can sit back and enjoy his success. Brian adds that Kenny doesn't have a choice and demands he sign the deal.Kenny gets to the building he's setting up as the headquarters for Washoe. Everyone that works with him is in a panic. They learn that Indonesian soldiers are locking all of the workers out of the mining sites. Their exploration permits were revoked by the Minister, something set up by the Barrick Gold CEO. In present day, Jennings asks Kenny why he didn't just take the deal. Kenny explains that he would have been cut out, allowing his mine to be another one for Barrick Gold while he's written off as someone who just got lucky by stumbling upon it. He didn't want them to take it.The stock drops nearly 50 points after the public learns that Suharto, the president of Indonesia, has revoked the exploration rights. It's also announced that Barrick Gold is planning to take over the stock. Kenny gets depressed and gets drunk at various bars. He is eventually kicked out and makes a drunk calls on the pay phone to Kay, asking her to forgive him. But when morning comes, Michael is there and he encourages the drunk Kenny to regroup.Michael tells Kenny that he knows Suharto's son. The two fly back to Indonesia and visit the estate of Tommy, who is known to be the black sheep of his family. They see pictures of his father with Gerald Ford and George Bush and then Tommy leads them to his garden. He tells Kenny if he's serious about him solidifying the deal, he has to prove he has balls and tells him to step into a cage with a Bengal tiger. Kenny steps inside and pets the tiger as Michael and Tommy watch in admiration.At J.P. Morgan, the group learns that Kenny got a new deal where they retain 15 percent of the find and 85 goes to the company of Tommy's son. The deal then fizzles out with Barrick Gold so the only outside partners are now Michael and Kenny. J.P. Morgan then will represent none of it. Someone sympathetically tells Brian, who previously demanded control of everything, that hell land on his feet.Back at the local bar in Reno, Kenny celebrates with Bobby Burns and the original salesmen who helped his company in its heyday. They cheer as the news reports that Washoe has secured a deal with the Indonesian government to retain control of their strike, fending off the takeover from Barrick Gold. The shares are now soaring. It is then announced that Kenny was named Prospector of the Year by his peers.Kenny prepares his speech to receive the Golden Pick Axe award. He goes to surprise Kay at her new job at a furniture store but leaves when he sees her seemingly flirting with an employee. Instead he drops a package off on her front lawn.Kenny is flown to New York for the Prospector of the Year ceremony. Michael has to head back to the Busang site to deal with a problem and leaves the ceremony after Kenny begins his speech in which he tells the crowd about his Indonesia dream and about how his great-grandfather and father were prospectors.When Michael gets to Jakarta, he is arrested by armed Indonesian soldiers. Back at the hotel, Kenny is informed about Michael's arrest and learns that there actually is no gold at the site. When Kenny returns to Washoe headquarters, all the stockholders and reporters scream at him for defrauding them. He tells them he doesn't know any more than they do and he will get to the bottom of it. Inside, Bobby Burns explains that Tommy hired an independent assayer and they couldn't reproduce Michael's findings. There was never any gold there.Now all the news channels are covering the massive deception. It's revealed that gold dust was sprinkled onto rocks to make it look like it was precious metal. They had found river gold which is rounded and worn smooth but should have found flake gold rough edged and angular. But everything else about the samples was right so the obvious difference was overlooked.The New York Stock Exchange suspends trading, taking Kenny's company off the board. Kenny is then told that Michael was dumping stock over the last seven months, using a shell company he set up in the Philippines to transfer 167 million dollars.Kenny is interviewed by the FBI. He is told that while Michael was being transported above the jungle via helicopter, he undid his seatbelt and jumped to his death below, lost in the terrain. Days later, they found a body. Kenny tells them it wasn't necessarily Michael, pointing out he knows the river like the back of his hand and can communicate with the locals. In Indonesia, he could have easily purchased a dead body with a mangled face and pretended it was him. When its pointed out that there was an autopsy, Kenny responds that Michael had $167 million so he could have easily bribed an official to create a fake report. Kenny is adamant Michael be held accountable and insists they do their own independent autopsy report. He also insists he wasnt a part of the deception.Now the CEO of Barrick Gold goes on the news to claim they pulled out of the venture with Washoe because they suspected there were problems. He admits that he made money during the company's success but investors lost billions of dollars. The news reporter wonders if Kenny was a fool who was duped or a mastermind who knew what was going on all along.The FBI finds Kenny and tells him they've put out an APB on Michael. Kenny learns that the body they found was cremated so they can't do another autopsy. During a press conference, Kenny tells the news stations that he was betrayed by Michael and had no knowledge of the deception. He points out that he never sold one single share of his stock and he lost more money than any of them. When the press conference ends, Kenny asks someone to give an envelope to Kay. Kay is escorted to a home which is she is told is all paid for and in her name.Now it's 1997 and Jennings is interrogating Kenny for the truth. Kenny says, "The truth becomes insignificant when everyone's getting rich. All anyone had to do was look. Just open their eyes. But no one looked, because no one wanted to know." He adds that greed is the only truth there is and greed is blind. Jennings ends the disposition. He asks Kenny if he thinks Michael was ever a real person. Nobody had ever seen him. Kenny assures him he is real and that Michael saved him at his lowest point, drunk outside a bar.We flashback to Kenny receiving a letter in the mail with no return address and inside is the napkin he signed which offers him 50% of the profits from their company… along with a check for $88 million.