Considered lost for years, Wake in Fright is finally getting the release it is due. Anthony Buckley, the film’s editor took it upon himself to sleuth out a negative, eventually finding paydirt in Pittsburgh nearly a decade after the search began. It was discovered in a bin labelled to be destroyed. Wake‘s tenacity to stay alive is a testament to the film’s unflinching, voyeuristic look at humanity under pressure, and the weight that can crush if it is allowed.
Wake in Fright is the kind of film you watch and can’t forget, like it or not. It drags you into its uninhibited grime to drown you in a sweaty beer lather. You can see the surface, know that a fresh breath is within reach, but its grip just strengthens and pulls you in deeper. Witnessing the uncontrolled descent of a man becoming what he loathes most is a jarring spectacle. To be human is to be frail, and that is the water the movie treads in.
For John Grant (Gary Bond), isolation is a killer. Under circumstances beyond his reach, he works as a bond teacher in the remote desert town of Tiboonda. With vacation on the horizon and designs to catch the first available plane to Sydney, he can’t leave soon enough. A one night stay-over in Bundanyabba is all that separates him from the grating monotony he left behind. Growing restless in his hot hotel room, John seeks out a bar to liquor up the hours and pass time. He finds a watering hole with back room gambling and feverishly drunk patrons. John joins in the games, setting in motion a wager inside himself he never knew existed. Short on funds he takes up with locals who ply him with booze and opinions. In return John is condescending to them, radiating a smugness and bitter tone that let’s everyone know he’s just visiting.
When he meets Doc (an absolutely pitch perfect Donald Pleasance), a man living by his own set of standards and ideals, he finds in him a man he’s not only disgusted by, but deep down resembles. It starts a relationship of trust and visceral excursions into what makes a man. A scene where John joins a kangaroo hunt sees him confront a personal purgatory, one where his education and social status don’t mean anything and the limbo is self induced. He is a man losing sight of the control he pretends to understand and dominate.
Wake in Fright presents a self made man paving his own road to hell. An exercise in grueling horror, it’s a slow-motion deconstruction of weakness and strength set against the burning orange Australian desert. The film proposes: that if left to our own devices, are we as sane as we think we are? Or does repressing desires and motivations keep us in check, and if so is it for the better? Director Ted Kotcheff looses a Loch Ness Monster in the brain, bringing a caricature of humanity at its most extreme uneasily to life. Like a garish funhouse mirror, it is placed in front of its viewers, stretching and manipulating what is seen and what is taken away.
The Upside: Donald Pleasance is positively brilliant in his role of Doc.
The Downside: The kangaroo hunt is an infamous scene known for its graphic depiction of real kangaroos being killed. Serious warning, if this sounds bad already, avoid the film altogether.
On the Side: Wake in Fright is one of only two films to ever had the honor of being screened twice at the Cannes Film Festival.