Written by: Anthony Hayes; Polly Smyth
Directed by: Anthony Hayes
Starring: Zac Efron; Anthony Hayes; Susie Porter
Distributor: Screen Media Films
Over the last few years, former Disney Channel star Zac Efron has been making some interesting moves, turning away from the eye candy roles that came to define him as a younger actor and embracing heavier dramatic material. His turn as Ted Bundy in 2019’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile proved he was eager to move beyond typecast and I’m not sure if there’s a more direct route to doing so than by playing a serial killer.
Indeed, if it were only the atrocity of Bundy that Efron had tapped into, maybe it would be easy to dismiss as gimmick — a desperate act of overcompensation. But when he commits himself in the way that he does in Gold, a viciously realistic survival thriller from Aussie director, writer and co-star Anthony Hayes, suddenly the days of High School Musical seem like prehistory. This is Efron operating on another level, evoking desperation and greed to stomach-churning effect. Sure, he benefits from Beth Halsted’s stunning make-up work, but he essentially holds the entire movie on his own and that’s no small feat.
Set sometime in the near future, Gold keeps the audience in the dark as far as the big picture is concerned. The script (by Hayes and his partner Polly Smyth) is as minimalist as the stripped-out coal mine that has become of the world. We’re post-apocalypse but we don’t know what caused humanity to be brought to its knees. A man named Virgil (Efron) train-hops his way to a remote outpost in the sprawling desert. Here he’s to catch a ride with another man, Keith (played in a gruff and world-weary manner by Hayes) who will take him to a mysterious place called The Compound, where Virgil hopes to find some stability doing hard labor. (Yeah, this movie is grim — imagine that for a happy ending.)
As the pair make their way in Keith’s weather-beaten truck we get drip fed little bits of their past and their musings on what is happening elsewhere. Not much is revealed, just enough to get an idea Virgil may be carrying around a little too much sensitivity in this place, while Keith appears/sounds the genuine article as a frontiersman. But the proof will be in the suffering when the pair make the incredible discovery of a massive chunk of gold and hatch a plan to extract it. Too big to move by hand or even truck, Virgil insists he stay behind to guard their riches while Keith will head back to get an excavator, a round trip of about five days or so.
Fine if you’re staying at the Ritz-Carlton, not so much if you’re hitching yourself to a lone, sun-parched tree with minimal food and water supplies. At least he has a satellite phone? High winds, reptiles, wild dogs — these are some of the amenities Virgil gets to enjoy as he goes full Aron Ralston in 127 even more desperate hours, squaring off against dehydration, starvation and paranoia as each passing sun and moon adds to the feeling of abandonment. It’s a startlingly authentic portrayal from Efron, who is a strong reason to see yet another movie titled Gold.
Though filmed in the Flinders Ranges of the Outback the movie is shot tightly, with a raw intimacy that never allows you to get comfortable. As director, Hayes uses the crunch of COVID-era restrictions to fashion a harrowing tale of obsession and survival where space is put to use in ways both creative and cruel. As screenwriter, his judgment of time elapsing is one of the most powerful driving forces, with a variety of cuts to Efron’s façade depicting a man utterly wasting away in the elements.
Gold is undeniably a familiar yarn, one where a carefully curated song at the end spells out the lesson learned in big letters. When a scavenger (played with sinister intent by Susie Porter) appears on the scene, the haggard signposting of where things go are as obvious as the glinting jewel. Still, the heaviness with which certain developments land is not to be discounted. Dismissing the saga as overly familiar does a disservice to the intensity and authenticity of the experience.
Gnarly and visceral, Gold is entertaining in that morbidly fascinating way movies about the corruptive power of wealth often are — it’s not full-blown Shadenfreude, but at some point sympathy drops away and yields to pity. Even with sparse personality, the technical aspects make everything feel real and hard to look away from, even when you want to.
Moral of the Story: 127 Hours meets The Treasure of the Sierra Madre meets The Martian (the latter, in a more painfully specific way I guess). Harsh and pretty conservative in terms of action, Gold won’t be everyone’s idea of a fun Saturday night but for those looking for proof of Zac Efron’s talent, look no further.
Running Time: 91 mins.
Quoted: “I can handle it.”
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