When I was in Middle School, one of my teachers introduced my class to a Chinese Finger Trap. For those who don’t know; a Chinese Finger Trap is a circular device woven from bamboo that a person puts on the end of each of their index fingers. When you pull the device, it excruciatingly tightens around your fingers, but when you push your fingers closer to one another, it loosens. The goal, of course, is to free your fingers, but there is also a hidden deeper meaning.
Director Anthony Hayes’ gritty directorial debut Gold metaphorically deploys Chinese Finger Trap upon its characters. Set in a dystopian “not too distant future,” Gold introduces the audience to its unnamed protagonist (named in the credits as ‘Virgil’), played by Zac Efron. This movie asks a lot of Efron, whose roots are mostly comedies (Neighbors, Dirty Grandpa) and romantic films (The Lucky One, That Awkward Moment). And if you didn’t know any better, you may assume he would not be up to the challenge. But Efron is not the boy he once was in the High School Musical trilogy. Residing in Australia, where Gold was filmed, Efron’s Virgil has become hardened by having to grow up too fast. There is a calmness, a resignation, and an acceptance to Efron’s acting that brings life to a character who is meant to be relatively stoic.
Gold opens with Virgil sharing a train with an exhausted mother and her whimpering infant child. Virgil, whose musky face matches the mother’s, internally grapples with whether he should share the small amount of food he has with them. He relents and does. Soon after, he arrives at a mostly abandoned outpost seeking a place called ‘The Compound’. There Virgil meets a second unnamed man (credited as ‘Keith’), played by Hayes himself, and pays him to take him there. As they begin their journey, Keith warns Virgil about The Compound, which promises to “change your life in just four months!,” telling him that the tales of hope are largely lies and propaganda. “I’m not afraid of hard work,” Virgil replies. On the trip, they witness two dogs fight one another for survival and food. When the fight is over, Keith chases the victor away before putting the near-death dog out of its misery, hitting it over the head with a rock.
The two journey on through the sandy terrain, until fate intervenes. Virgil, desperate for comfort, tries adjusting the broken-down vehicle’s air conditioning, and ultimately destroys the engine. Stranded in the desert, Virgil and Keith debate solutions to fix the car, when they stumble upon a large chunk of gold stuck in the ground. Soon they realize that this two-man job is going to require trust, as one of them will have to stay with the gold while the other retrieves a device to help excavate the gold, which brings us to the Chinese Finger Trap. Were Virgil and Keith willing to lean closer to one another and work together, this would be a simple solution (and a boring movie). Unfortunately, since human beings are a flawed species, it is rarely that simple.
There is a third unnamed character in this film; the setting itself. At first glance of Virgil and Keith cruising through a dry, sandy desert in a broken down truck, this world Gold introduces the audience to may seem reminiscent of Mad Max. Zoom in a little deeper, however, and you see a mix of other dystopian influences, such as Blade Runner or Snowpiercer. While little actual runtime is spent on exposition, Gold is efficient, using each available beat to tell us about the multiple currencies (Chinese Yen, American Dollar, bitcoin) or show us the variety of cultures in this universe. As Virgil battles the hectic climate and conditions to protect the gold, it becomes apparent that the human condition is the main antagonist. It is compounded by the roughness of the environment, which serves primarily to heighten Virgil’s desperation.
Virgil’s journey is one of necessity. In the beginning, he seeks The Compound because he wants a better, simpler life. When he and Keith stumble upon the gold, both see it as their way out. In the middle of his watch, as Virgil takes a break from building a shelter to protect him from the overbearing Sun, he sees a small animal crawl over the chunk of gold. “Look at you,” he laments, “you’ve been crawling over a large chunk of gold your whole life, and you don’t even know it.” This piece of symbolism reminded me of one of my favorite lines in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, spoken by Vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron:
“Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be.”
Human greed may originate inside of us at birth, but it is incentivized by the system in which we exist. We think this system gives us order, but it actually creates chaos. Near the end of the movie, a struggling woman, much like the one Virgil met at the beginning of the film, encounters him and his campsite. Worried she is going to discover the gold, and tired from fighting off animals and the conditions, Virgil relents and gives in to his animalistic instincts by killing her. Stuck in dangerous and catastrophic terrain, Virgil is willing to do anything to find the hope he is so desperate for. It is right there in front of him, all he has to do is hold on for another minute. Another hour. Another day. Keith will come back, they will excavate the gold, and life will become much simpler.
But at what cost?
Gold will be released in select theaters on March 11, 2022