A judge at last year’s Flickerfest International Short Film Festival, the Australian filmmaker returns to Bondi’s premiere event to compete with a number of other thematically charged entries for this year’s top gong in the Australian Shorts category with his film Mask of the Evil Apparition.
Australian cinema has a rich legacy of survival stories, especially when it comes to stranding foreigners in the unsympathetic wilderness of our unforgiving outback. And while newly minted Gold continues this distinctly Australian sub-genre, alongside the likes of Wake in Fright, Cargo, the recent limited series The Tourist, etc., its director Anthony Hayes has managed to craft a nerve-wracking survival legend that is at once compelling, visceral and utterly unique in its own clogging ether of desperation and despair. And, one could argue, imbued with a refinement expected from a filmmaker with far more experience in a director’s chair than Hayes can lay credit to (short feature New Skin (2002), Ten Empty (2008)).
Gold rides upon a simple enough premise: two unnamed strangers – a gruff seasoned guide and his traumatised passenger – set out across a desert landscape to a location innocuously referred to as The Compound. However, when their truck breaks down, the passenger happens upon a massive gold nugget, embedded in the desolate plains.
After a brief discussion on the risks of being stranded alone in the desert, it is decided the guide will leave his passenger behind to guard the rare metal from potential scavengers while he heads out to a settlement in order to retrieve an excavator to help unearth their find.
Set in a post-apocalyptic landscape of an Australian Outback reeling in the wake of massive environmental collapse, Hayes has crafted a perceptive survival saga which gracefully skims the trappings of a blunt morality tale, instead taking a deliberate and subtle approach to the exploration of pivotal themes such as greed, violence, and the inherent cruelty of human nature, all under pretence of his wider survival narrative.
Hayes’ most inspired play is his casting of Zac Efron as the film’s lead, with the Californian delivering a performance both exceptional and affecting. In fact, Efron’s turn as the unnamed foreigner stranded in the isolated outback to guard a chunk of metal, is essential to the film’s intensity and integrity, with the Bad Neighbours actor filling every frame with an unnerving, creeping dread that deliberately escalates alongside his physical decline at the hands of the environment.
While Efron’s performance is striking, it would be remiss not to also acknowledge the work of cinematographer Ross Giardina, who captures the bleak Australian landscape with a blistering clarity and authenticity that resonates with ominous beauty, while Hayes himself, alongside an almost unrecognisable Susie Porter, add an intriguing distraction as two, again unnamed, desert dwellers navigating their own paths in the deadly plains of the wastelands.
Lensed with a chromatic starkness, elevated by a harsh soundscape of crawling insects, buzzing flies and various elemental threats, Gold is undeniably the kind of cinema that demands you experience it. And Hayes, who also penned the script with his partner Polly Smyth, has managed to morph these various, unpalatable elements into a darkly compelling, richly satisfying film.
The youngest ever SAS recruit has turned author with the espionage/thriller Mantra-6 series, with first book BRIMSTONE scheduled to shoot this year, directed by Storm Ashwood (The School, Escape and Evasion).