By Tim Kroenert
26 February 2022
There is a long history in Australian cinema of depicting natural environments as a source of psychological and physical horror. In films like Wake in Fright, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Wolf Creek, the Australian wilderness is portrayed as a beautiful but treacherous, living presence. The force of its elements, its beasts and sheer scale are as much a threat to the protagonists as the sinister humans that also exist in those films. Such films play on a deep-seated sense that those of European descent are interlopers, who simply don’t belong there.
Director Anthony Hayes’ Gold joins that tradition with a dark and vaguely dystopian meditation on greed and obsession in the far outback. There are murmurings throughout of apocalyptic events rending the nation’s more populated regions. The film’s central character, billed only as Man One (Zac Efron), has come to the desert in search of some kind of solace. Man Two (Hayes) has agreed to drive him where he wants to go. Their long and gruelling crossing of these badlands comes to a halt when they stumble across a deposit of gold.
The gold is an iceberg, a protruding lump with a massive bulk caught beneath the soil. The two men agree that one of them will return to the nearest (but days distant) town to retrieve excavation equipment, while the other will remain and stand watch over their find. They decide that Man One will be the one to stay. He is confident he is up to the task. But as days pass, his water supply dwindles, the sun blisters his skin by day, wild dogs snarl in the darkness by night, and he comes to realise how fragile a concept survival is in this place.
Cinematographer Ross Giardina creates images that milk the scenario and setting for their mythic potential. Two men leap and holler in silhouette against an impossibly distant horizon – small gods dancing on the face of the universe as they celebrate their supposed new-found wealth. Later, a lone pale campfire and silver moon barely keep night’s shroud at bay. The gold itself is a talisman, anchoring Man One to the material world as the unknowable void threatens to engulf him. Ironic, since that glinting face is what kept him here in the first place.
Efron’s portrayal of the man’s physical and psychological undoing is visceral and captivating. As a largely solo performance it is a tour-de-force. But the film doesn’t quite pay off on his efforts. The arrival of a mysterious, hooded woman (Susie Porter), armed with bow and arrow, marks a turn into a sillier mode of gothic horror. Eventually Gold devolves into more banal depictions of violence and gore. In the long run it will be a footnote rather than a classic like those films mentioned above. For now it is at least a thoughtful diversion.
Gold is streaming on Stan.