NOW ON HULU! Anthony Hayes’ Gold strips down a multitude of genres – call it a post-apocalyptic survival horror thriller – to bare essentials. Aside from a few minor but vital supporting characters, the claustrophobic narrative revolves around one nameless protagonist. There’s a minimum of dialogue. The entirety of the plot takes place in a single remote location. It almost treads into Samuel Beckett territory, with its bleak vision of humanity and the absurdity of the central dilemma. Alas, it’s more Buried than Waiting for Godot. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Per the title card, the events of Gold unfold “some time, some place, not far from now.” The world has turned into a barren, scorching desert. Our limping (anti)hero (Zac Efron) hooks up a ride to get to a mysterious compound, a haven of sorts, where he can secure a crappy job and regain a semblance of identity. The truck driver (Hayes) sports a neck tattoo and kills injured dogs with a rock to the face. He instantly takes charge – quite literally, charging the young man triple the agreed amount for the escort.
When their car breaks down, the duo stumbles upon a large gold nugget stuck in the sand. They need an excavator to get it out – a five-day, dangerous trip. After lengthy deliberation, the older man sets out, leaving the hapless chum to fend for himself with a gallon of water and a few cans of beans. He collects driftwood, scares away scorpions and wild dogs, attempts to hunt snakes, and discovers an airplane crash site.
“…the duo stumbles upon a large gold nugget stuck in the sand.”
It takes the truck driver much longer than expected to return. The dehydrated young man starts losing it, baked to a crisp in the sun. He befriends a scorpion, spills the rest of his water, and weathers a sandstorm that leaves him with a piece of wood wedged in his side. A stranger (Susie Porter) further complicates the situation. Yet that shiny, precious metal jutting out of the sand keeps him going.
Throughout Gold, you can almost taste the sand, cinematographer Ross Giardina making the most of the limited location. As days pass, the sun beams down relentlessly, and the world becomes as bleached out as the driftwood; all that space yet nowhere to go. The spare landscape allows us to ponder things like our effect on nature, where we’re all heading, the relationship between men when stripped to its core, and whether, ultimately, greed is to blame for all of humanity’s wrongdoings.
That’s not to say that the film is a meditative, existential drama. There are plenty of grisly shenanigans and pulse-pounding moments to snap us out of our musings. A lot hinges on Efron’s shoulders, and he pulls it off in a near-wordless performance. We never learn much about his character, but that’s beyond the point: we are witnessing male rapacity at its most unhinged. As the skin curls off his sand-blasted features and his limp gets worse, he makes us feel every subliminal gasp for air, making his character compelling, if not likable. It’s a much-needed change of pace for the actor.
Under the guise of a gruesome survival tale, Gold functions as an experimental treatise on the rottenness of human beings, particularly male ones. Gripping and mercifully short, it doesn’t quite achieve the status of cinematic gold. Perhaps it’s for the best, or Hayes may have fallen prey to his ambitions. Some things are best left buried in the sand.
"…a lot hinges on Efron's shoulders, and he pulls it off..."