Review: Zac Efron Burns Up the Screen In Relentless, Apocalyptic Gold

When your two main characters are named in the credits as Man One and Man Two, you may get a sneaking suspicion that the story you’ve just seen is something of a metaphor. The largely Australian production from director/co-writer (with Polly Smyth) and star Anthony Hayes (Man Two, for those counting), Gold is a sometimes striking, often brutal tale of a drifter (Man One, played by a bearded and scarred Zac Efron) who arrives by train on the edge of a desert. He's on his way to a place only known as The Compound, which sounds like one of the last remaining safe havens in a country, or maybe even world, that has gone and done it to itself. Money still serves some function, and for a few hundred dollars, Man Two is driving Man One to this mysterious compound from the train station. The desert is barren and endless, and the trip will take days; plus, what lies behind the walls of the Compound doesn’t sound much better than what Man One has just left. When the two make a stop to let the car cool down and make some repairs, Man One stumbles upon a pile of rocks that appear to be massive quantities of gold. After they dig around the pile, they discover that the piece that looks like gold is just the tip of a massive boulder of the stuff that they can’t get out of the ground with just shovels and brute strength. Man Two goes to get an excavator, leaving behind a small stash of food, water, a satellite phone, and the promise of returning within five days. All Man One has to do is not die from the heat or lose his mind from a healthy combination paranoia, dehydration, and a fried brain. The most interesting elements of Gold occur when Efron is alone, getting cooked by the sun and attempting to ignore his hallucinations. He discovers the wreckage of a small plane nearby and uses pieces of it to build a fairly secure shelter; a nasty sandstorm buries most of his supplies and destroys his shelter without mercy; and a third character (The Stranger, played by Susie Porter) arrives with suspicions about why Man One is out here by himself. Director Hayes (Ten Empty) was primarily known as an actor before turning to filmmaking, so he has a sense of what he can put Efron through and allow it to feel like survival and not pure torture. As Man One begins to lose all sense of hope that Man Two will ever return, he finally gets a call on his phone from his friend, saying he’s running late getting back, pushing Efron’s brain further away from hopeful. Efron is literally burning away in front of our eyes, and the resulting performance might be the best, most pure acting he’s done in his entire career. Man One is a beaten soul who stopped asking for help from others around the same time the world got all screwed up (the film was shot in Australia, but there’s no clear sense where this is taking place, because it doesn’t matter). The more immediate concern is the pack of wild dogs just on the outskirts of Man One’s campfire who want to tear his face off as soon as he lets the flames die down. Did I mention this movie is also legitimately terrifying at times? I’m not entirely sure what the true point or message of the film might be, but not knowing never stopped me from taking in Efron’s powerful work. There’s little to no trace of his seemingly impossible-to-hide good looks, and that only makes the film more bleak. Perhaps more an acting exercise than anything else in the end, Gold cuts deep and rarely lets up. The film is now in a limited theatrical release.  
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.