Gold review – Zac Efron fries in a tough and tense outback thriller

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Anthony Hayes is far from the first film-maker to have realised that the Australian outback provides great scaffolding for sparse dystopias, his tough and tense survival thriller Gold emphasising the vast, screen-buckling nothingness. Led by a grubby-looking and banged-up Zac Efron, continuing a long tradition of actors seeking critical acclaim by messing up their photogenic faces, the film is introduced with the text: “SOME TIME. SOME PLACE. NOT FAR FROM NOW … ”

This is another way of saying that this South Australia-shot production is set during what the Mad Max director, George Miller, describes as “next Wednesday”: a time in which “all the bad things we read in the news come to pass”. Happy happy joy joy Gold is not, in other words, with its vision of an ecologically ruined world that’s gone to the dogs. Hayes makes it abundantly clear from the unsubtle opening shot – a pair of vultures – that this will be a rather different vision of sand and sun than the 2017 Baywatch remake Efron starred in, torpedo buoy in hand, pectorals glistening.

Although Gold is a new addition to a genre I call the “bugger dead, it’s hot” action thriller (which includes the terrific TV series The Tourist), Hayes makes the point that the story is not necessarily based in Australia but the aforementioned “SOME PLACE”. This handily saves Efron from impersonating an Aussie and from the potential embarrassment suffered by those (like Bill Nighy, Quentin Tarantino and Kirby Howell-Baptiste) who have tried to wrap their tongues around a speaking style once described by Winston Churchill as “the most brutal maltreatment that has ever been inflicted on the mother-tongue of the great English-speaking nations”.

Hayes, a veteran character actor himself, co-stars as a bloke billed as Man Two, opposite Efron’s Man One. This reflects an intentional lack of humanity in the film’s outlook, with its tendency to view people through a misanthropic lens. The two men are in the outback because Man One has discovered a huge chunk of gold in them thar desert, which leads to an awkward conversation between them thar men, about who should stay and who should go get the excavator. Efron insists on staying with the gold, despite him being an inexperienced stranger in this land, with nary a solar-powered portable fan or six pack of brewskis to make the impending experience more palatable.

Gold is minimalistic, with an interesting kind of contextual ambiguity. Photograph: Stan

Gold has elements of a chamber piece, but also long stretches in which a hot and bothered Man One becomes increasingly, well, hot and bothered, fending off various hallucinations. It’s clear early on that Efron is in good hands, with Hayes being a talented director of other actors, as he demonstrated in his 2008 hard-hitting directorial debut Ten Empty. Hayes also clearly trusts Efron, who delivers a strong, gloomy and tetchy performance. It’s smart, rather than exceptional, acting: Efron understands he doesn’t need to say and do too much here; he can internalise emotion and let the atmosphere and intensity of the film wash over him.

The cinematographer, Ross Giardina, depicts heat in an interesting way, scaling back the palette to such an extent that many scenes appear virtually colourless. Early on, when Hayes is shown having a cigarette, the smoke he exhales is almost the same colour as the sky: a chalky white more commonly seen in ice and snow. The inference of heat here comes from other places: the barrenness of the land, sweat, the clogging intensity of the drama itself.

Gold is a minimalistic production, story and setting wise, with an interesting kind of contextual ambiguity: we know there is a wider world beyond the frame, though we don’t know what it looks like. Sparseness is intriguing, but this film is so damn sparse. With so little going on, for such a long time, the experience becomes gratingly thin. I admired the craft of Gold but left feeling cold – unlike, of course, Efron, who is cooked like an overripe piece of fruit tossed into an incinerator.