In the opening scene of “Gold”, director Anthony Hayes wastes no time immersing us in his harsh dystopian setting. A drifter (played with remarkable restraint by Zac Efron) sits in a railway boxcar as it slowly moves across the dry parched outback. The man, with his face caked in grime and his clothes covered in dust, hops off the train at a barren depot made mostly of rusted tin and tarp. He’s there to meet another man who is to drive him to a mysterious place called “the compound”. This opening sequence (and really the entire movie) does such a good job drawing you into its world that you can almost taste the grit in your mouth.
Co-written by Hayes and Polly Smyth, this Australian thriller moves at a visceral slow-boil, relying as much of the visual language of DP Ross Giardina’s camera than a driving narrative. Set “Some time. Some place. Not far from now…”, the striking cinematography conveys a not-too-distant future that’s both stunning to behold and undeniably forbidding. And Hayes’ uncompromising dedication to realizing his gritty and minimalist vision makes for an experience that’s hard to shake.
Perhaps it’s unjust of me, but Efron is an actor that I never expect much from. While there has been a hint or two of his talent, he’s wasted a lot of time on forgettable dramas, corny rom-coms, and lame raunchy comedies. But he proves me wrong in “Gold”, delivering what I feel is the best performance of his career. Efron shows an intense commitment both physically and dramatically and the above-mentioned restraint allows him to show off a side of his talent that I didn’t know he had.
Efron’s drifter is a bit of a mystery. He’s clearly had a tough run as evident by deep scar across his face and a noticeable limp. We learn that he’s from “back west” and is heading to the compound for what he understands to be an opportunity to work and make some money. When he’s picked up at the depot by his driver (played by Hayes himself) the two head off across the grueling landscape. As they drive, their conversations shed a little light on the world’s crumbing society. But Hayes leaves most of that to our imagination and instead hones in on these two men who make a life-changing discovery.
While stopped in the middle of nowhere, the two men stumble across a massive deposit of gold. Unable to dig it out of the ground or pull it out with the truck, they put together a plan to claim their fortune. The driver will take the truck to a village some two days away and get an excavator. The drifter will stay behind and guard their treasure from any potential passerbys. Of course that will require surviving the scorching sun, the harsh land, and packs wild dogs with minimal food and water.
With the driver gone, we spend all of our time with the drifter as his story turns from fortune to all-out survival. The layers of detail Hayes brings makes the drifter’s worsening circumstances feel remarkably real. Filming near the Flinders Ranges in the South Australian outback creates an authentic setting that is a sparse and arid spread of sand, bushes, and deadwood. Then there are the details Hayes commits to his lead character. Whether it’s his face covered in flies or the various stages of sunburn realized through the incredible work of makeup artist Beth Halsted. Efron’s performance is equally crucial to making it all feel painfully genuine.
As “Gold” unfolds it evolves into a story of greed and the dissolution of humanity. It’s also a man-versus-nature movie but with a slight “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” vibe. All of these themes and influences come together in a taut, focused, and surprisingly potent thriller. It also features a terrific Zac Efron performance that gives long-time naysayers like me a chance to rethink our past feelings on the 34-year-old actor. “Gold” is streaming now on Hulu.