Film Review – Wake in Fright
We open on a shot of an empty horizon. Desert for as far as the eye can see. Slowly, the camera pans three hundred and sixty degrees. We see nothing but a continuous sea of outback. Brown and orange color the absolute flat space of the environment of what is the middle of Australia. In the center of the shot is one lonely, shabby building—almost a shack. As the camera comes to a stop where it began, I turn to the other people in the room and ask the question, “What do you think living in an absolute wide-open space like that does to a person’s mentality?”—which is exactly what the filmmakers want you to ask at this moment. Inside the shack, we are introduced to a classroom of various ages and grades, and a teacher, John Grant (Gary Bond). Everyone is watching the time. After a moment of anticipation, Grant tells the class they are dismissed. That’s it. It’s the end of the school year.
Grant begins a six-week vacation by heading to the town of Bundanyabba, where he plans to catch a flight to visit his girlfriend in Sydney. Much to Grant’s dismay, nothing goes according to plan. Bundanyabba is a debauchery-filled oasis in the middle of the outback. Alcohol literally flows faster and more abundantly than water. Gambling is based around the flip of two coins. The sheriff is as friendly as he his mysteriously menacing. And the biggest insult you can afford anyone is to turn down a drink. Grant immediately learns all these lessons and is soon in the midst of an alcoholic fog, and the company of a local named ‘Doc’ Tydon (Donald Pleasance). Before Grant knows it, he’s lost all his money, is stranded amongst Yabba Men (which is slang for the inhabitants of the town), and is being forced to drink beer as if it’s air for the lungs. What follows is a civilized man’s decent into the abyss of the dark side of human nature.
Released in 1971, Wake in Fright was both acclaimed by critics and shunned by audiences, and until now has not seen a stateside home video release. It was and still is unsettling in its implications of human depravity and the resulting imagery that ensues. Most notable is a sequence in which kangaroos are hunted and footage from actual poachers is inserted into the film. It is stark, and it is most certainly disturbing, but that is about as far as it goes. Otherwise the bulk of the film is filled with drinking. So much drinking that it has the effect on the viewer of making them feel like they’ve been constantly drinking throughout the duration of the character’s odyssey, much as in the film Leaving Las Vegas.
This is a story in and of its time. What audiences may see as disturbing today, in the wake of such pornographic violence as the Saw and Hostel series, or the emotional downward spiral of Requiem for a Dream and Shame, will make this seem tame in comparison. But in 1971, this was something new, raw, and unpredictable—it was dangerous.
What makes Wake in Fright effective—despite its dated sense of the disturbing—is its craftsmanship. Director Ted Kotcheff, also known for the films First Blood, Uncommon Valor, and Weekend at Bernie’s, approaches the storytelling with a straightforward, non-intrusive photographic style. The editing is tight on precision and works to create an almost claustrophobic economy against the wide-open backdrop of the endless desert, barren of even the slightest deviation from flatness. The score bounces from being borderline unbearably upbeat to tension-building in its atmospheric droning. This, I feel, is intentional, and while unexpected at first, it works to the film’s advantage by its conclusion.
John Grant turns in a sobering performance as the British teacher who learns a new definition of drunk, and Donald Pleasance is mysteriously frightening—the very opposite of his Bond villain, Ernst Blofeld. While all these factors make for a very well-made and ultimately interesting film, there is a criticism I hold for films with puritanical views on sexuality and what makes for the ultimate depravity, which more often than not seems to be gay sex. Until recently, societal acceptance of what is foreign to the straight community has been looked at as deviant, but this is of course from a narrow, frightened view, and is unfortunate wherever it may turn up and whatever discriminatory shape it takes. For me, it was not necessarily enough to destroy the film, and this is one I certainly enjoyed. It caught me off-guard and impressed me with its technicality, especially for a film forty years old and succeeded by lengths of depravity that have far surpassed it.
Final Grade: A