Zac Efron’s High School Musical co-star, Vanessa Hudgens, stuck a pin in her pristine Disney image with her role in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, where she played one of the title characters: a bikini-clad sociopath in a pink balaclava, who robs fast food restaurants and smokes copious amounts of dope. Efron himself has remained pretty clean-cut in his choices – except that one time he played serial killer Ted Bundy – but maybe Gold is his attempt to muss up his own image. His method of doing that is not through showing too much skin or doing too many drugs, but rather, caking his face with dust, dirt, blood, dead layers of sunburnt flesh, and more flies crawling over his lips and eyes than on a Kalgoorlie horse ranch.
Anthony Hayes’ film, in which the director also co-stars, is less about the titular metal and more a traditional story of surviving against the elements – elements which wreak untold havoc on Efron’s face. The film is shot in Australia (the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, to be exact), but not explicitly set here, considering that none of the few characters have Australian accents. The two men – Virgil (Efron) and Keith (Hayes) – speak in American accents, which is of course Efron’s actual accent. The woman, known only as The Stranger (Susie Porter), uses an Irish accent, even though the actress is Australian. Gold isn’t interested in where this is, and considering that it appears to be a harsh apocalyptic near future, nowhere is as good a place as anywhere else.
The plot is simple. Two men are driving in the Australian outback – or at least a place very much like it – with one hired by the other expressly for the purpose of bringing him out there. During a random stop for car trouble, the passenger discovers a large chunk of what looks like gold – and is proven to be so when the driver holds a flame to it, and it does not burn black. The chunk is big enough that their best efforts to extract it are futile. One must return to the nearest outpost of civilisation to get an excavator, the other must stay to guard the gold and prevent any other scavengers from finding it. This is the story of the second man.
That setup makes it seem like it will be a good story. It isn’t really. Movies about people being lost in the wilderness – which Efron effectively is, despite having a satellite phone – don’t tend to rely too much on story. It’s more a showcase for the actor, an attempt to push himself to the limits of his abilities, than a strict narrative of what happens on what day, and whether this narrative has any momentum toward the film’s conclusion.
Narrative signposts are the best you can hope for in terms of plot points, and Gold has those. At one point Virgil finds a downed aircraft, using some of its paneling to buttress his makeshift shelter. Dingoes or some other form of wild dog (remember, this might not be Australia) loom in the distance, and maybe not so far in the distance. And then of course there’s the appearance of the Stranger, who likely wouldn’t know that Virgil is guarding an immeasurably valuable outcropping of gold, but who can sense in his manner that he’s hiding something. She might mean him harm even if she didn’t know about the gold, since this is a dog-eat-dog world – sometimes literally.
Hayes has given us a good vision of a barren wasteland, with its intermittent demonstrations of what it takes to survive in this world. He hasn’t quite given us enough reason to care about that world or the people we see inhabiting it. The lack of a back story for the characters is intentional, and in truth, what happened before the events of the story can be a crutch for less imaginative filmmakers than Hayes. However, the reason those filmmakers use that crutch is they don’t want us to get to a point in watching their film where we say “So what?”
“So what” is, unfortunately, the conclusion we reach multiple times during Gold. Even some of the more hallucinatory imagery, which has its momentary effectiveness, kind of melts away from our memory after it leaves the screen. Nothing sticks in Gold. It is a cautionary tale, but of what we are not exactly certain.
Toward the end of the brief-enough 97-minute running time, an interesting interpretation of what we’ve been watching comes into focus. There are some things we might have suspected that are granted a satsifying form of certainty. But the moment this happens, the film ends. Hayes leaves ideas on the table just when the film was finally starting to take shape.
Which really only leaves us with the dust, dirt, blood, dead layers of sunburnt flesh, and all the flies in Kalgoorlie on Efron’s face. Which is not enough, even if it does place an indisputable distance between the actor and the pretty boy origins of his fame.
Gold is currently streaming on Stan.