Those who loved lumberjack, outdoorsy Zac Efron on his series Down to Earth will get more than they bargained for with Gold. The grim, stark survival film finds Efron’s weather-beaten face further eaten alive by flies, caked in sand and dirt, and that’s to say nothing about the thick Australian heat raining down upon him. It’s an intense, physical performance that will change the way you perceive Efron, but the film’s story of greed and desperation is as dry as the desert landscape.
Efron, who made Australia his home last year, is surprisingly right at home in the Hellish Mad Max-like landscape imagined by Aussie writer/director/actor Anthony Hayes. When we meet Efron’s unnamed man, he looks a right state, having train-hopped his way to a remote armpit town with nothing but dirt, a filthy outhouse, and a ramshackle “hotel” run by somebody who can scarcely be bothered with. Efron is looking for his ride to “The Commune”, and the driver (Hayes) has questions about this outsider and why he wants to go there. He’s been promised a job there. The prospect of such a thing makes the driver laugh. In this uncertain dystopian time, niceties are a joke. Even washing one’s face under a water tap is seen as a rare privilege, “This ain’t no beauty spa”, Hayes says.
The ride is stuffy with tough-guy secrets, neither man wanting to say too much. But they begin to open up once Efron uncovers an enormous mound of gold. Good thing they took that pee break. It’s enough to make both men incredibly rich. Trying to dig it out doesn’t work. They’ll need something more powerful. Efron won’t leave it behind, and doesn’t trust the driver to stay with it. So Hayes’ driver leaves, promising to return with the right equipment. He also gives the outsider a harsh warning: stop being so loose with your water. This place will kill ya. Wild dogs lurk, nature is deadly, everything will get ya out here, basically.
The rest of the film belongs to Efron, and he owns it. While his dialogue is limited, mainly in grunts and screams, the man’s desperation is what comes through most. This is a foreboding tale about man’s most basic urges, greed paramount among them. With so much wealth on the line, Efron’s character forgets about everything else. Food, water, even basic survival instinct go out the window. In a climate as harsh as the one he’s in, that can be deadly.
The problem is that Gold lacks that one thing to make it stand out from the pack. Shot on a limited budget, this no-frills survival flick cuts a barebones picture of blind avarice. In the opening moments, Efron gives his last bit of food to a hungry child on the train. How he goes from that generous soul to the forlorn, ravaged figure holding on to hope of wealth like grim death is quite the journey. There are no real twists to speak of, and we learn next to nothing about Efron’s character. There’s something refreshing in Hayes’ austere approach to the material, but as the man faces starvation, thirst, the loss of sanity, and eventually, starving predators, learning more about him would have been like a bounty of riches to a thin narrative.
Gold is available in theaters now.