Straw Dogs, Wild Bunch, Taxi Driver, or even the crazy Japanese films of Miike Takashi or Takeshi Kitano… if you think you have seen your share of violent cinema and a gem called Wake in Fright isn't on that list then you haven't seen it all. There are violent films and then there are violent films but the chances that you'd ever watch anything as cinematically violent as Wake in Fright are next to none. An extremely powerful, honest, gripping and brutal beyond description tale of one man's journey to his dark side Wake in Fright is directed by Ted Kotcheff and along with Walkabout and Mad Max is often considered to be one of the most seminal films to ever come out of Australia. Premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971, the film was in running for the Golden Palm but a dismal box-office run and its unavailability on VHS or DVD made it fade away from public memory.
Wake in Fright poster (Image courtesy: www.drafthousefilms.com)
Wake in Fright is the story of John (Gary Bond), a bonded government schoolteacher in Tiboonda, a remote township in the arid Australian Outback. John needs to pay off the government in order to get his freedom but that seems impossible in the near future. At the beginning of the Christmas break from school John has to spend a night at Bundanyabba or The Yabba, a mining town, from where he'll catch a flight to Sydney. That night Jack meets a local cop, Jock (Chips Rafferty), at the pub who in the name of Aussie hospitality forces him to drink beer incessantly. Later Jock introduces Jack to the town's only pastime gambling and swayed by his beginner's luck in a few games of 'two up' Jack decides to bet it all in order to make enough money to leave teaching. Soon Jack loses all his money and is at the mercy of the crude residents. One man Tim (Al Thomas) insists on buying him a beer and soon it becomes one beer too many and a broke Jack invites himself to Tim's home. He meets Janette (Sylvia Kay), Tim's daughter, and his decision to talk to her than drink some more beer with Tim's buddies makes him appear strange to other men. Janette makes an embarrassed sexual advance on John but an inebriated John ends up vomiting. One of men there is Doc (Donald Pleasence), an alcoholic quack, who starts playing with John's mind and tells him that everyone there has had an encounter with Janette. Stuck in the back of beyond John has no option but to go along whatever comes his way - a wild night of cruel kangaroo hunting, excessive drinking, fighting and a near homosexual encounter with Doc. Finally a repulsed John decides to walk across the wilderness to get as far away but ends up hitchhiking back into Yabba. He toys with the idea of killing Doc but tries to take his own life. He survives the suicide attempt and leaves Yabba for Tiboonda just in time for the new session.
The moral decay of John is the centrepiece of Wake in Fright and it's an unpleasantly honest account of his descent into the lowest depths humanly possible. The opening shot of the film is a 360-degree pan of Tiboonda where a railway track cuts the landscape into two parts with John's school on one end and his shabby hotel on the other side. The starkness of the outback, the heat, the dust offers no respite and there's little anyone can do besides consume chilled beer like there's no tomorrow. Everything about Wake in Fright is raw and uncompromising. The actors look desperate, the photography is visceral enough to make you perspire looking at the imagery of the outback and the drama is scarily real. Men get drunk, fight, plunder and take their frustration out on mute animals; the kangaroo massacre scenes are graphic as the filmmakers shot the scenes during an actual kangaroo hunt conducted by licensed hunters. While no kangaroos were killed expressly for the film Wake in Fright features real scenes of kangaroos being hunted that were retained to highlight the threat to the animals. The crew was so nauseated by the whole experience, which lasted several hours, that it staged a power failure to end the hunt, as the hunters were getting drunk and missing.
For almost 40 years the film was considered lost and the only surviving print wasn't good enough for restoration. Finally after a decade long search the editor, Anthony Buckley, located a mint fresh print in Pittsburgh. The restored print was screened at 2009 Cannes Film Festival making Wake In Fright only the second film after Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura to be screened twice at the festival. Martin Scorsese who first saw the film when it premiered in 1971 and later in 2009 where he played an active role in the restoration process as well finds Wake in Fright 'visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically beautifully calibrated.' What makes Wake in Fright a great piece of art is that it goes beyond the expected and cares two hoots for consequences. It seeps under your skin and shakes you by its depiction of the inherent evil that resides within each of us. People around John reveal their disturbing streak but his acceptance of that and more importantly the manner in which he complies without reason is what makes it real. He shows that everyone man is capable of degradation beyond belief and expectations and the biggest fight we have is perhaps with us ourselves where we must never lose the grasp of our moral compass. During its initial screening in Australia one member of the audience took offense to what was being depicted on the screen and shouted, 'that's not us!' to which one of the actors responded, 'Sit down mate it is us.'