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Gold

This Australian-made thriller gives Zac Efron his turn at surviving the blistering outback, playing a stranger who spots a glistening nugget in a dystopian future.
By Sarah Ward
January 20, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
January 20, 2022
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Gold's title doubles as an exclamation that Australian filmmakers might've made when Zac Efron decamped to its shores at the beginning of the pandemic. Only this outback-set thriller has put the High School Musical, Bad Neighbours and Baywatch star to work Down Under, however, and he definitely isn't in Hollywood anymore. Instead, he's stuck in "some time, some place, not far from now…", as all-caps text advises in the movie's opening moments. He's caught in a post-Mad Max-style dystopia, where sweltering heat, a visible lack of shelter, a cut-throat attitude, water rationing, and nothing but dirt and dust as far as the eye can see greets survivors navigating a rusty wasteland. But then his character, Man One, spots a glint, and all that glisters is indeed gold — and he must guard it while Man Two (Anthony Hayes, also the film's director) seeks out an excavator.

Exactly who stays and who goes is the subject of heated discussion, but Gold is an economical movie, mirroring how its on-screen figures need to be careful about every move they make in such unforgiving surroundings. As a filmmaker, helming his first feature since 2008's Ten Empty, Hayes knows his star attraction — and he's also well-aware of the survivalist genre, and its history, that he's plonking Efron into. Almost every male actor has been in one such flick or so it can seem, whether Tom Hanks is talking to a volleyball in Castaway, Liam Neeson is communing with wolves in The Grey or Mads Mikkelsen is facing frosty climes in Arctic. Although Gold purposefully never names its setting, Australia's vast expanse is no stranger to testing its visitors, too, but Hayes' version slips in nicely alongside the likes of Wake in Fright, The Rover and Cargo, rather than rips them off.

The reason such tales persist is pure human nature — we're always battling against the world around us, even if everyday folks are rarely in such extreme situations — and, on-screen, because of the performances they evoke. Efron isn't even the first import to get stranded in sunburnt country in 2022, after Jamie Dornan did the same in TV miniseries The Tourist, but he puts in a compellingly internalised performance. Man One's minutes, hours and days guarding an oversized nugget pass with sparing sips of H20, attempts to build a shelter and altercations with the locals, including of the two-legged, canine, insect and arachnid varieties, and the toll of all this time alone builds in Efron's eyes and posture. His face crackles from the sun, heat and muck, but his portrayal is as much about enduring as reacting, as both Efron and Hayes savvily recognise.

Writing with costumer-turned-scribe Polly Smyth as well as directing solo, Hayes puts more than just survival on Gold's mind, though: when the titular yellow precious metal is involved, greed is rarely good. Here, staying alive at any cost is all about striking it rich at any cost, and also about the paranoia festering between two new acquaintances who've randomly stumbled upon a life-changing windfall — as heightened by the film's stark, harsh, post-apocalyptic setup. When a third person (Susie Porter, Ladies in Black) enters the scenario, Gold grimly lets its life-or-death and lucky break elements keep clashing, but also pairs Man One's desperation with the mental decline that blistering in the sun, being parched with thirst and starving with hunger all bring. Greed proves perilous in a plethora of ways in the film's frames, including inside its main character's head.

The mood: dire, drastic but also frantic, the latter not in pace but in how urgently Man One obviously wants the situation to work out. As lensed by cinematographer Ross Giardina, who also worked as a second unit director of photography on The Dressmaker — another feature to make strong use of the Aussie landscape while led by an high-profile overseas actor — Gold ensures its bleak tone ripples in every image. Just how grey, white and almost blue the desert can look here is one of the movie's most striking features, in fact. Where The Tourist blazed away its cooler hues, and most other outback-set fare lets ochre and golden shades radiate, Gold is sun-dappled to the point of often being sun-bleached. As shot in South Australia, all of its wide vistas look particularly ominous as a result, and never let the feature's tension subside for a second.

Another of Gold's astute moves springs from its determined focus; don't expect backstory here. Barely glimpsed signs make it clear that this likely isn't Australia, but Hayes sports a heavily put-on American accent to match Efron — because keeping everything ambiguous to retain an unflinching gaze on two men and their big piece of gold is the lean aim. In early scenes, the remote outpost where Man One enlists a ride from Man Two is dystopian-standard sparse, and all that's said about Man One's need to head east is that he's en route to work in a mining camp. The details of why the world has turned to hot dust don't matter, with Hayes and Smyth leaving plenty of room for viewers to read in their own takes on how human nature — the movie's main subject — has turned the planet into this scalding hell.

From its performances and visuals to its weightiness, Gold is patently well-made. Again, it's well-acted, including by Hayes (who, among his many acting credits dating back to the early 90s, also had roles in The Rover and Cargo). With every image it bakes onto the screen, it's inescapably well-lensed, which applies when peering closely at Efron in a fraying state and surveying all that desert stretching out around him. It ruminates upon familiar but still meaty matters, and thoughtfully so, all within a stingingly suspenseful feature. Gold is also never more than the sum of its parts, but those parts always do what they're meant to — and glitter as brightly as they need to.

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