A single, bare tree interrupts the vast emptiness of the indeterminate desert landscape where “Gold” takes place. It’s a pathetic speck of shelter that does little to prevent the relentless heat from tormenting Zac Efron’s nameless character for the bulk of the film, his progressively weathered face giving new meaning to the words “blistering sun.” The location brings to mind the sparse set design of “Waiting for Godot,” (Beckett’s stage directions read: “A country road. A tree.”) as does the film’s narrative itself, a tale of similarly hopeless anticipation in the bleakest of atmospheres.
. Overall, however, “Gold,” like its title, does little to stand out in a crowd (it’s the 25th film to use the word as its title, according to IMDb), so committed to its stripped-down style of storytelling and monotonous sepia color scheme that there’s little left for the audience to connect with, leaving us parched for something to focus on besides the purulent third-degree sunburn on Efron’s face.
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Unlike “Godot,” Efron lacks the Vladimir to his Estragon, with nothing but reptiles, flies, and the threat of rabid dogs to keep him company. That is, unless you count the giant nugget of gold he’s guarding, which takes on a life of its own and keeps him largely entertained as he bides his time in the punishing desert. “Gold” is set in a vaguely post-apocalyptic future “not far from now,” where the few people that are left are jaded, hungry, and coated in dirt from head to toe.
When we meet Efron, he’s already in shambles, limping off a train he’s freight-hopped to a dusty town in the middle of nowhere. He’s planning to catch a ride to a place called “The Compound,” where a potential job doing hard labor awaits. While en route with a nameless churlish local (played by Australian actor Anthony Hayes, who also directs and co-writes the minimalist script with his partner Polly Smyth), Efron spots a glimmer of gold, which turns out to be a lump big enough to make both men unfathomably rich.
Efron volunteers to stay and guard the booty while Hayes gets an excavator to dig it out (a five day trip there and back), despite his warnings that he might not have what it takes to make it alone in the desert. Hayes leaves him with a minimal food and water supply, and his satellite phone that he’ll use to call him when he gets to town. Unsurprisingly, Efron is unprepared for nature’s harsh realities, succumbing to dehydration, near-starvation, and most notably, being out in the sun without some broad-spectrum SPF. As the five days come and go, he’s left wondering if Hayes has abandoned him to the elements.
Efron’s character is meant to be a cypher, a stand-in for the greed and desperation that can overtake anyone in the proper circumstances. His character barely utters a line, but his grizzled face and dead-set, piercing blue eyes transmit a backstory of loss and hard luck. Aided by the harshness of the terrain and limited water, he grows increasingly paranoid about someone stealing the gold, and his worsening condition turns him into a zombie-like prospector, a half-dead guardian of his precious riches.
In the opening scene, Efron gives his last piece of bread to a hungry baby on the train, as if to suggest that he doesn’t have a greedy bone in his body. In a way, we’re grateful in a way that Hayes doesn’t over-explain what led him here or what the apocalypse entailed, leaving some room for mystery (and making it an ideal COVID-era film; it began filming in November 2020 in the desolate South Australian outback with a cast of six). But this bare minimum of detail doesn’t do enough to solidify his motivations, or to show how much he really changed after his big discovery.
While Efron’s performance is admirably restrained, doing much to solidify his reputation as a more serious actor who has evolved from his Disney Channel days, it can only hold up the entire film for so long. Clearly owing much to “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Gold” would benefit from playing up the chemistry among Efron and its two other talented co-stars, the way Huston’s film does so well. Hayes delivers an excellent, if brief performance, and Susie Porter stuns as an intimidating steam-punk drifter whose screen time is cut short just as it’s getting started.
“Gold” tries to build tension from a sense of emptiness — empty space, empty pockets, empty water bottles, and the fear of a moral emptiness that may exist deep within yourself. And while a nihilistic vision of the future — of climate disaster, war, disease, or some combination of the three — is certainly relatable, “Gold” ends up being rather empty itself, void of any real message aside from the lyrics to the Nick Cave song that play as the credits roll: “People Ain’t No Good.”
Screen Media will release “Gold” in theaters on Friday, March 11.
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