Zac Efron scrubs away all vestiges of his pretty-boy persona beneath the baking sun and swirling sands of the Australian survival tale “Gold.”
He’s clearly trying to distance himself as far as possible from both the “High School Musical” heartthrob and the “Neighbors” movies hunk of yore. Even his sinister role as serial killer Ted Bundy in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” seems tame compared to this. With his shaggy beard, ragged clothes, and generally haggard appearance, Efron goes all in as a nameless loner wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. For the vast majority of the time, he acts alone on screen and mostly wordlessly, except for the occasional curse to express his frustration. You can see the allure of the role: It’s difficult, and it demands that we take him seriously.
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If only the film itself rose to Efron’s extreme level of his commitment. “Gold” is more effective from an aesthetic standpoint than it is from a narrative one. The storytelling is actually too streamlined—we know too little about these people to become engrossed in whether they persevere. Director, co-writer, and co-star Anthony Hayes does create a vividly harsh landscape, though, and he accomplishes a lot with his spare means. Working with cinematographer Ross Giardina, he places his few characters in a monochromatic sprawl that’s bleak and tactile. A hellish, third-act sandstorm devastates in minimalist fashion. Moody sunsets are especially striking, but they’re also a reminder that the end of each day brings zero hope for a better tomorrow.
At the film’s start, Efron’s stoic character—listed literally as Man One in the credits—arrives at a dilapidated gas station in the middle of nowhere to meet a stranger for a ride. He is Hayes’ comparatively chatty Man Two, who has agreed to drive Efron’s character to some outpost, a journey that takes them through jagged, craggy terrain that hauntingly resembles the moon’s surface. We don’t know why the world is like this, by the way. It just is. We also don’t know anything about who these people were in the before times. They just are. The most we learn about Man One is that he’s “from the West,” a mocking term that suggests he’s relatively sophisticated.
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But any differences that exist between Man One and Man Two immediately fall away when their car breaks down and they find themselves stranded. While camping overnight, they just happen to discover a gigantic chunk of gold sticking out of the ground, something they both desperately want and must trust each other to dislodge. While Hayes’ character takes off to procure excavating equipment, Efron’s must stay and mind the treasure, enduring harsh elements, ravenous wild dogs, and incessant flies swarming around his beautiful but blistered face for what feels like forever. The process at play can be intriguing—how he passes the time, the spry edits when he comes across a plane’s wreckage and turns it into a makeshift shelter. This is also a rare reminder of the outside world and the possibility that humanity exists somewhere, but such context is quickly fleeting. Similarly, a run-in with another drifter (Susie Porter) briefly heightens the film’s tension. She also happens to have a personality—she’s a smart-ass, which is exciting. But then it’s back to waiting, and more waiting, with the occasional lens flare.
It’s pretty standard man vs. nature stuff. It’s also a pretty simple parable about the perils of greed. All of this would be fine if “Gold” had more to it, but aside from its undeniable style, there’s very little there there. Efron is game for the physical rigors of the role, but he doesn’t get much opportunity to convey this character’s psychological deterioration. As we’ve seen in solo survival films like “Cast Away,” “All Is Lost,” or “Adrift,” an actor can reveal so much about his or her character through problem solving, through breaking down emotionally and overcoming adversity from one obstacle to the next. Efron isn’t afforded such range in the script from Hayes and Polly Smyth. He just … is. And that’s not quite enough.