Movie Review: "Wake in Fright" (Australia, 1971)
Let's get this out of the way first thing: THANK YOU, SHUDDER! I never would've seen this if it weren't for you. How fucking refreshing....it's been a long time since I've seen at movie that (at the very least) makes it into my personal Top 20 on first viewing.
Yes. I just said that with an utterly straight face.
Wake in Fright is the story of John Grant (Gary Bond, Great Expectations), a schoolteacher in the ridiculously rural town of Tiboonda (we're talking two buildings in the whole place, one on either side of the tracks). Following the end of the school year, he heads back to Sydney to his woman. However, he stops for the night in Bundanyabba (aka "The Yabba") and loses all all of his money in a night of poor gambling choices and excessive drinking. What follows is an odyssey down the rabbit hole of machismo, excess, and savagery. His spirit guide, if you will, through the Outback and the wilds of out of control manhood is Doc Tydon (a vigorously young Donald Pleasance, Halloween).
The on-location shooting and genuinely sun-baked nastiness of the setting are as real as it gets. Everyone is sweaty, swarthy, & sleazy. No one drinks their beer like a civilized human being; everything disappears in one long chug. Everyone smokes, everyone cusses, everyone gambles. It's overwhelming in the best way possible. The gambling scene is a thing of beauty through nastiness.
Scene by scene John loses himself, but the beauty is how damn familiar it all is! Every dude has been where John goes- you start drinking and you know you are going too far. You pass the point of no return with a smile on your face and the caveman crudely pushes the civilized human being to the back of the bus. You're not sad to see him go. Sometimes the animal has to come out.
Yes, I said every dude has been there. That's not sexism, this is simply not a woman's movie at all. This is a movie about what it means to shrug off the chains of civility and be (for better or worse) what it's in your nature to be. It's a theme the director visits more than once in his career.
It's truly fucking ugly. You will feel that in your bones as you watch director Ted Kotcheff's (Rambo: First Blood, Weekend at Bernie's) masterpiece, Wake in Fright. He's not pulling a single damn punch here. John has moments of lucidity that (like the release) are all too easy to relate to. He snaps back to reality and stops to ponder why he's degenerating like a damn backwoods savage. It's more than a little painful to watch, especially when the next escapade presents itself and he's off and running again.
I feel it necessary to give a bit of a "trigger warning", so to speak, to those who are bothered by scenes of violence on animals. There's a lengthy scene where John, Doc Tydon, & the boys hunt kangaroos by running them down with their car and shooting them, followed by some nighttime poaching with a spotlight. It gets up close and personal with hand to hand shenanigans with real kangaroos. It's bloody and seriously uncomfortable. Fair warning.
That's part of the reason I applaud this movie. It's not playing it safe in showing you how ugly the not-so-fair sex can be. The goal is to put you in the shit, and Wake in Fright succeeds on every level. The one woman in the film who's more than background fodder is every bit as backwards and twisted as the men; she's been corrupted, too. It's uncompromising. Sometimes you have to be to have that impact.
Donald Pleasance shows why he is a true legend, vacillating between utter civility and depravity with hideous skill. God, I love a character that changes teams from good guy to heel over and over and can keep it fresh...and this was all seven years before his career-making turn as Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween!
Sometimes it's best to let the key line do the talking. John Grant has just passed into semi-consciousness after yet another night of binge drinking and animal killing. Doc Tydon is sermonizing to him: "I cannot accept your premise, Socrates. Affectability... progress... are vanities spawned by fear. A vanity spawned by fear. The aim of what you call civilization is a man in a smokin' jacket, whiskey and soda, pressing a bottom... button, to destroy a planet a billion miles away, kill a billion people he's never seen."
It's always nice when you don't have to look deeply for the theme, yet it's not delivered in a heavy-handed and clumsy way. That type of presentation takes more than a little skill. I rewound it a couple of times to absorb it. What a killer line!
At the end of it all, it's truly up to you what conclusion you draw from the ending and what side you fall on. One thing's for sure- you will have conflicting emotions going both ways, and you will feel simultaneously awful and strangely proud on either side.
No small feat there. Bravo!