Producers: John Schwarz, Michael Schwarz and Anthony Hayes   Director: Anthony Hayes   Screenplay: Anthony Hayes and Polly Smyth   Cast: Zach Efron, Susie Porter, Anthony Hayes and Andreas Sobik   Distributor: Screen Media

Grade: C

One can have a variety of reactions to Anthony Hayes’s post-apocalyptic thriller.  If you’re feeling exceptionally generous, you might consider it a homage to Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed.”  If you’re interested primarily in the thespian aspect, you can praise it as a chance for Zac Efron to demonstrate his dramatic muscles.  Or if you’re just a random viewer stumbling on it online, you could simply dismiss it as one long, depressing slog through a desert.

That desert is in Australia, where we find Efron’s unnamed character making his way to some sort of compound where he apparently hopes to seek a future better than the bleakness he’s trying to escape from.  The final leg of his journey is a long trek in a truck driven by Hayes, also nameless.  When they break down our presumed hero wanders off a bit into the desolate landscape and finds, sticking up from the sand, a bit of what might be a large buried nugget of gold.

They try to dig it up, but it proves too large, so they decide that one will remain with the gold while the other drives to a settlement to get an excavator.  It’s Efron who stays behind and Hayes who goes, promising to return as soon as he can.  The focus is kept on Efron, who builds himself a camp, cannibalizing the wreckage of a small plane, and holds off the wild dogs that harass him as best he can with the burning branches he spends most of his day collecting.

At one point, however, he has a human visitor—a woman, played by Polly Smyth, who’s apparently a local scavenger who quickly becomes suspicious of him.  Their interplay does not go well, but even after they part he is haunted by her.  Or does she return?

Meanwhile, Hayes is delayed in returning, and Efron begins to wilt in the sun, especially after a terrible sandstorm that leaves him injured and more and more threatened by the dogs.  Will he be able to survive until Hayes makes it back?  And what’s keeping Hayes so long?

The script by Hayes and Polly Smyth tries to maintain suspense by keeping these questions floating in the air, but “Gold” simply grows increasingly tedious over time.  It tries to say something about the all-consuming power of greed—a more economical version of von Stroheim—but is so stripped-down and elemental in its effects that its point becomes oppressively on-the-nose.  By the close everyone has been reduced to the bestial nature of the feral dogs.

One does have to respect the stark, hostile ambience that Hayes and his cinematographer Ross Giardina have created, and Antony Partos’ spare score adds to the grim mood, as does Sean Lahiff’s unhurried editing. 

But the main interest certainly comes from Efron’s committed performance.  He can’t entirely shed his matinee idol looks, but tries to go down-and-dirty, and manages pretty well to erase his old squeaky-clean image while maintaining a hint of naïve nobility beneath the unnamed character’s rougher, more rugged exterior.  To be sure the turn doesn’t escape the feeling that he’s trying to “stretch,” but the effort is more successful than not.  Hayes, meanwhile, looks like a brother of Ray Winstone, and exhibits a similar degree of gruff nastiness.  Porter brings a no-nonsense practicality to the mysterious interloper.

“Gold” has some points of interest, but overall it’s not of the twenty-four-carat cinematic variety.