Zac Efron stars in Gold
Zac Efron stars in Gold; courtesy of South Australian Film Corporation and Stan

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Something darkly amusing happens in Gold, the new survivor thriller starring Zac Efron, before we see a second of footage. The film opens with a logo from Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, the parent company of Screen Media Films, Gold’s American distributor. The brand has a strong association with positivity, and yet there are zero good vibes to be had here. Director and co-writer Anthony Hayes has crafted a relentlessly grim story, a vision of an apocalyptic desert with more despair than sand. And, as part of his ongoing effort to shed his teen idol image, Efron’s physically demanding performance is always convincing, even if he gets a major assist from effects and make-up that distort his good looks.

Hayes imagines a world that has not quite reached Mad Max levels of catastrophe. There are some semblances of infrastructure, and characters talk about an ongoing conflict that suggests society could collapse at any second. The entire film takes place in a sun-drenched wasteland, one with few resources and populated by people who are willing to betray each other so they can live a little longer. Efron plays Virgil—the script refers to him as “man one”—who wants to cross the wasteland to enter someplace called “The Compound.” He needs a driver, and Hayes himself plays Keith, or “man two,” a hardened character who understands the dangers of the desert. Along their journey, the unlikely pair stumble upon a large hunk of gold and reach a drastic agreement: While Keith looks for an excavator who can dig it out, Virgil will make sure no one else takes it. Alone in a harsh environment, most of the film follows Virgil’s descent toward madness.  

Many movies have shown the effects of an inhospitable environment, but Gold takes that concept farther than few films dare. By the middle of the story, Efron is borderline unrecognizable. His face is caked in dirt, and sores cover the exposed parts of his body. There are many scenes where Efron stares into nothingness, contemplating his survival, while flies nest all over his face. The night scenes are hardly any reprieve, since wild dogs howl and terrorize Virgil. It is a nice touch that their cries seem distant at first, then grow louder with each passing night.

But Hayes does not dwell on Virgil’s physical and emotional trauma. Instead the script—co-written by him and Polly Smyth—considers the practical concerns of Virgil’s effort. With few resources and tools, how would someone find shelter? How would they pass the time? At first, Virgil takes an admirable “mind over matter” approach, making sure he keeps his wits about him. But his resolve wanes as Keith takes longer to return; Efron’s understated whimpers convey a whole lot of misery.

Another complicating factor is a stranger (Susie Porter) who happens upon Virgil. She offers him food, he refuses, and she correctly guesses he has a secret. In a tradition that carries all the way back to 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the possibility of gold has a way of poisoning minds. Hayes and Smyth keep the dialogue simple and terse, so while the encounter has a familiar conclusion, there is a plausible inevitability to it. To his credit, Hayes and cinematographer Ross Giardina vary the camera placement here and elsewhere, suggesting the beauty of an austere environment while never shying away from its brutality. Porter looks like a survivor, someone at home in Mad Max or even Dune, while Efron appears on the cusp of death. They both underestimate each other, and the tension builds over who will get the drop on the other first.

Hayes and Efron must realize there is a small audience for Gold. Their film is uncompromising, and many scenes are in near-silence. Unlike 127 Hours, another film about someone surviving in the desert, there is no sense of triumph, only a reminder that nature usually wins in man’s attempt to dominate it. If there is some allegorical component to the film, it is nearly lost in its single-minded attempt to depict the kind of degradation someone can tolerate. This is a punishing film, albeit a grimly funny one, as long as you’re willing to endure it. By the cynical final image, Hayes ultimately suggests that the desert does not have much, but it does have a sense of irony.

Gold opens in theaters on March 11.