There’s a gag in Charles Shyer’s 1984 tear-jerker comedy Irreconcilable Differences in which Ryan O’Neal, as a mad-with-power film director, is demanding more flies on the set of his musical remake of Gone With The Wind. An exasperated crewman (Stuart Pankin, if you must know) fires back: “We’ve already got every fly in the state working!”
The scene might come to mind (if you are, admittedly, a little nuts) while watching Zac Efron get pummeled by flies during much of the running time of Gold, a low budget survival film from Australian actor-director Anthony Hayes. Flies on his face, flies in his hair, flies all over the place. On the one hand, it’s a testament to the tactile nature of what’s been captured here. At the same time, if you’re daydreaming about a nearly 40-year-old Shelly Long dramedy, clearly something isn’t totally connecting.
Gold drops us in the middle of a strange land in a strange time. All we know is that it is dry, unpleasant, and there have been some geopolitical changes. “No Trespassing” signs are in English, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese. Efron, our main character, whose name we never learn, arrives via train to a dusty spot on the map indistinguishable from anywhere else except for a gross outhouse (with flies), some laundry on a line, and a man glued to a TV screen.
In time we learn he’s from “out West” and headed to a “compound,” where he’s been promised work. An unnamed driver (director Hayes, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Polly Smyth) is there to meet him, and they will share the days-long journey. Hayes first spots Efron as he’s dunking his head under a water tap. “This ain’t a goddamn beauty spa,” he snorts, exuding some tough guy bravado.
It seems, at first, just a typical line from a grim dystopian movie, but it’s actually one of the few indicators at backstory. When one looks at production stills from Gold it is understandable, at first, to chuckle at boyish Zac Efron covered in dirt and grime. Clips show him limping. And he shares more scenes with a repulsive sunburn than with any one person. “Gee,” one might think, “someone’s really hoping to be taken seriously as an actor now.” But if there is to be some sort of armageddon-ish event, someone with the good looks of the co-star of Neighbors, Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates, and, yes, High School Musical could conceivably survive it, too. This subtle line of dialogue shows that the movie is well aware that a guy as handsome as Zac Efron is completely out of place in this bleak landscape. It’s a nice touch.
That landscape, not-so-incidentally, is gorgeous, and one of the main selling points of this movie. During their drive, the two men (who don’t speak that much) are elegantly framed against enormous backdrops of nature at its most stark. (Gold was filmed in an around an area called Leigh Creek, in the state of South Australia.)
Trouble comes, however, during a break in the drive, and, after relieving himself, Efron discovers an enormous chunk of gold under some dirt. The two men quickly dig around it, revealing it to be utterly massive, but they are unable to get it out of the ground with simple tools.
The driver knows where to get an extractor, and wants to send Efron to get it while he watches over the treasure. Efron is puzzled. If the driver knows where to get the machine, wouldn’t it be easier for him to go? The driver is blunt: There’s no way Efron could ever survive being alone in the elements, surrounded by wild dogs and encroaching madness, for the several days it will take.
Nevertheless, it’s Efron who stays, and now it’s a one man show. But unlike some terrific recent survival films—Joe Penna’s Arctic, J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, or even Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity—our hero isn’t trying to get anywhere; his goal is to stay put and not go bananas. As such, the dramatic stakes considerably lessened. Sure, there are some visitors who make their way to the camp (unless that’s all in Efron’s mind?) but “sit and wait for your friend to come back” isn’t exactly the most compelling formula. Tension does build and there is a satisfying conclusion, but there is an significant stretch where, undeniably, a sizable amount of air comes out of the balloon.
As far as Efron’s performance is concerned, he does well. (Take a second look at We Are Your Friends, a terrific movie that whiffed both at the box office and with most critics.) No, this is not his The Revenant and he won’t be winning any Oscars, but the guy did roll around in the hot sand and had flies buzz around his eyes for our entertainment. He may be a classic Hollywood hunk, but he rises to the challenge here.