Gold takes place in the “not-too-distant future.” We're never told what happened, but apparently it was pretty bad, possibly even apocalyptic. Man One (Zac Efron) is a drifter, making his way across the desert to an outpost where there's supposedly shelter and work. A hired driver, Man Two (Anthony Hayes), transports him in a run-down, yet still functional pickup truck. They don't speak to each other a whole lot, although Man Two warns that the outpost is not the ideal location Man One has been told.

When the truck stalls from overheating, the guys step outside for a few minutes. That's when Man One stumbles across a massive chunk of gold sticking out of the dirt and sand. It's roughly the size of a boulder, and it's too heavy to dig out or move. A plan is hatched in which Man One will stay with the gold. Man Two will make the several-days-long drive back to where they came from, get the necessary machinery to yank it out, and return. Over the days that he sits in wait, Man One deals with a variety of threats, from hungry dingoes, to blistering heat, to a sandstorm.

Gold could just as easily have been called Watch Zac Efron Suffer. This is the latest example of the Ordeal Movie, a type of story in which we're stranded alongside a character as they fight to stay alive amid some kind of grueling nightmare. Films of this sort are not for everyone. The protagonist may be the only one enduring physical torture, but we experience it on a psychological level by mentally putting ourselves in their shoes. Done as well as it is here, the sensation can be exhausting.

Hayes, who also directed, has a strong visual sense. Shooting in the Australian desert, he gives the movie a style that conveys the barrenness of the location, as well as the unrelenting brutality of the sun. With that authentic setting in place, Hayes proceeds to put Man One through hell. Efron proves remarkably game, allowing himself to be caked with dirt, swarmed by real flies, and ultimately made to look like he stuck his face in a pizza oven. The character's torment leaps off the screen, making Gold harrowing to watch.

Aside from dropping all pretense of vanity for the role, Efron smartly gives a minimalist performance. He knows that we can see what Man One is going through, so there's no need to overemote. As he crawls through sand and dehydrates, the actor speaks volumes with merely an expression. He shows us how the guy becomes more and more internally panicked the longer Man Two is gone without resorting to showiness. This might just be the best work of his career so far.

Gold ends on an appropriately cynical note for a story that's about greed and misery. I can't help feeling like it could have used one or two additional shots to sell the idea Hayes wants to leave us with, though. You can figure out what happened if you've been paying attention. An extra beat to show it more explicitly would have made the cut to black feel slightly less abrupt than it does. That minor gripe aside, Gold is a fine example of the Ordeal Movie. If these sorts of tales pull you in – and they often rattle my nerves, big time – hold on to your armrests and brace yourself for 97 minutes of sheer intensity.

out of four

Gold is rated R for language and some violent content. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.