Nothing screams “filmed during COVID” like gold (now on Hulu), an Australian survival thriller that puts Zac Efron in the desert all alone, making him dirtier and uglier as he endures the harsh elements. Which is funny because Efron is a well-known handsome man, and also gross because there are passages of the movie where we’re dangerously close to seeing the poor guy’s skin in the sun in real time. It’s also funny that this grim, sombre film is a Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment production, although it felt more like sulfuric acid for the soul. fun, isn’t it.


The essentials: Title card that comes just after the Chicken Soup for the Soul logo card: ANY TIME, ANY PLACE, NOT FAR NOW. It should perhaps read “NOT LONG START NOW, because “FAR” means distance, not time. It’s like “further” is strictly for distance and “further” is something that can’t be measured, but if it said “NO FUR FROM NOW” that would be just silly. Funny the things you think about when you’re supposed to be thinking about the movie in front of you, especially when that movie isn’t that hot.

Anyway, it seems like someone blew up the world or part of it, but who knows for sure? We see vultures, a rusty old train chugging along, and Efron’s scarred, dirty face slowly chewing some bread. miserable bread. He gets up and gives the rest of the miserable bread to a miserable baby and his miserable mother and gets off the miserable express. The surrounding area is bleached and dusty, the kind of reality that makes you wonder how many decades it’s been since bathing was banned – you know, nobody’s been clean since nineteen-dickey-two. Or maybe it’s just Australia Rimshot! He limps over to a scruffy, scruffy man who’s watching a working TV, and he doesn’t say much except where the fuck is. And if you thought the bread and the train and the mother and the baby were miserable, wait till you see the shantytown stinkhole of an outhouse. It looks right off the Woodstock ’99 grounds.

Our type – we never have a name – is taken along. He’s on his way to a place called Compound for a job or something. I don’t know, a lot of it is intentionally vague. He’s taken along by another guy (Anthony Hayes, who also directs and co-writes) whose name is also a seed that has no place in this script. It’s 200 whatever (the currency type is somewhere in the discard pile with the correct nouns) for the ride and another 100 for gas. You would think 200 for a ride would imply that gas is included and our guy brings that up but the other guy says it is, take it or leave it and our guy takes it. You get the sense that our guy doesn’t have much of a fight left in him.

It’s a long drive through a stiflingly barren desert to the site, long enough to camp. The cool conversation between our guy and the other guy warms a little over the fire that keeps the wild dogs at bay. The other guy asks our guy about the scar on his face, but our guy doesn’t want to talk about it. You wake up the next morning and while our guy goes there to piss in the dust, he spots something shiny. Gold. A piece of gold. A massive chunk, it turns out, so big they can dig and dig and dig around it and can’t shake it loose. The other has an idea: one is sitting with the gold and the other is going back to civilization to get an excavator. Then they dig up the devil and get rich. Our guy says he stays and the other one drives away. He’ll be back in a few days and all our guy has to do is keep calm and not lose his noodle. Easier said than done!

Photo: Courtesy of the Everett Collection

Which movies will it remind you of?: The attitude makes The street look like tiptoeing through the tulips. There’s a scene where our guy is talking to a scorpion I named Bilson. I’m pretty sure the guys turned left into the brown part of the landscape and drove a few hundred klicks past Mad Max’s parched shell. I also remembered the movie James Franco Cuts Off His Arm. 127 hours and the movie Ryan Reynolds stuck in a coffin the entire movie To bury.

Notable performance: Efron is the only person on screen for 75, maybe 80 percent of the film, and while I’m not sure if he’s really worth watching once you see the film, you have no choice but to watch his performance . It’s a perfectly acceptable performance, although the script’s deliberate abstraction and pared-down simile qualities dominate the character and severely hamper our emotional involvement in our man’s survival.

Memorable dialogue: Each other’s advice to our guys spending a few days alone in the desert: “Cheer up, everything will be fine.”

gender and skin: none. Not enough moisture to facilitate lubrication or finishing.

Our opinion: Efron is caught between a rock and a hard place, or, to suit the environment, between the scorching hot sun and the dry, arid ground, drier than a big ol’ bowl of milkless Cheerios. The sparse script leaves Efron to imply things about his character, which leads us to try and infer things about the things he’s implying; It’s like being in a pitch-dark room with a lamp plug and blindly poking around to find the outlet. Our guy has clearly been through something to do with his physical attributes and a certain hopeless look in his eyes, a hopeless look that brightens a bit with the prospect of redeeming that hunk of metal. And so the story is less about what the character deserves or doesn’t deserve and more about the folly of greed.

A scene inside gold, the conversation in which the two boys decide who stays and who goes is compelling in its nuances, leading us to wonder if it’s serious or manipulative. Furthermore, the film claims that no one, except perhaps Hitler, deserves what is happening to our guy, who is physically rotting before our eyes: grotesque blisters form on his skin and weeping sores open to be caked with dust and examined by the ever-present To fly. In the late stages of the film, Hayes photographs Efron with lighting, angles, and makeup that render him unrecognizable, utterly alien, and thoroughly repulsive.

There are some developments, because otherwise it’s just Efron and his occasional sidekick the scorpion hanging around and making us appreciate the comfort of our seats in an air-conditioned environment. I laughed during a scene where our guy tries in vain to poop in the sand and his surprisingly working satellite phone rings with impeccable timing; isn’t it always like that? Otherwise, the wild dogs circle it, occasionally devouring their own, and this film is artful at times, but mostly cheerless and ugly and hopeless.

Our appeal: In case I didn’t make it very clear, gold is no fun at all. SKIP IT.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more about his work at

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