Gold (M, 97 minutes)
Two nameless men, a pack of wild dogs and a scorpion make bare essentials in this minimalist survival drama set in the middle of nowhere. Other characters who appear briefly on screen go uncredited - a woman and her starving child, a vast personage manning an outpost, a woman and her sister who appear to patrol the bleak and blighted space - but there is little point for more. It all boils down to the two men, the desperadoes who suddenly find themselves in possession of a massive nugget of gold that will shape their future.
They are heading for a compound in the East through territories that people enter at their own risk, away from the West where folks are said to be turning on each other, and other points of the compass, anticipating the hordes that may be arriving anytime soon. Much of what we see, including signage en route in Chinese, Arabic and Russian, very effectively convey the idea that a desperate world lies beyond the frame in which societies and systems have broken down.
Since the great Mad Max movies, Australia's Red Centre has lent itself wondrously well to various visions of apocalypse and its post-industrial aftermath, and this film, directed by Anthony Hayes, is no exception. In this tale set some time, some place in the near future, the flanks of the Flinders Ranges loom in an elemental story of survival.
Hayes, who co-wrote the script with Polly Smyth, and his creative team have reimagined the famous tourist attraction as a bleak wasteland, crossed on occasion by freight trains on the way to an elsewhere, and by menacing, camouflaged para-military vehicles like the one that Man One (Zac Efron) shrinks from as he watches it drive part.
He and his companion Man Two (Anthony Hayes) have happened upon a massive gold nugget glinting in the sun in an unscheduled stop along the way. They might never find it again were they to leave and return with the excavator required to extract it from the soil, so they determine that Man One stays to protect their bounty, their pot of gold, even though Man Two suspects that his companion will have trouble maintaining his sanity while in such a situation.
Man One has a little water, some cans of food, a pocket knife, a satellite phone and batteries and a small piece of tarpaulin to shield himself from the sun. There are probably enough supplies for the duration of the five-day round trip that Man Two undertakes, but supplies are unlikely to be the issue.
American star Efron, the heartthrob of young audiences, is totally the grizzled survivalist in this new Australian film, the first he has appeared in here. The matinee-idol looks are hidden behind full beard and furrowed brow as he squints into the horizon. There is a scar, unexplained, and a limp. For Efron, it's a long way from Me and Orson Welles, The Greatest Showman or any other Hollywood role of his you may care to name. Perhaps the idea of putting himself in dangerous adventures in remote parts of the world, the concept articulated in his new TV series Killing Zac Efron, is already underway.
As the man left behind in the desert, Efron is the star in this survival film that pits all the desert has to offer against him. A pack of wild dogs, that may be dingoes, depend on cadavers to survive and there are lethal small creatures that slither and creep silently into campsites on the desert, but there are none so dangerous as other human beings themselves.
Gold is a brutal and grim tale set in a future where resources are scarce and disappearing rapidly. It features stark, beautiful, desaturated desert imagery from cinematographer Ross Giardina, and is set to a haunting score, featuring the duduk, by composer Antony Partos.
This is an absorbing, tough survival film without a flash of humour where its main character's conversation with a visiting scorpion is no less plausible than Tom Hanks's discussion with a volley ball in Cast Away. Though Gold reminded me most of David Michod's The Rover, in which another attractive young male is transformed by the harsh Australian desert and the future seems to depend on mining, still.