Wake in Fright (1971)
June 6, 2020 10:11 PM - Subscribe

After a bad gambling bet, a schoolteacher is marooned in a town full of crazy, drunk, violent men who threaten to make him just as crazy, drunk, and violent.

Roger Ebert: "Wake in Fright" is a film made in Australia in 1971 and almost lost forever. It's not dated. It is powerful, genuinely shocking and rather amazing. It comes billed as a "horror film" and contains a great deal of horror, but all of the horror is human and brutally realistic.

The Guardian: This is a world of blokes fanatically offering each other drinks, gambling on penny-toss games and standing stock-still in the pub at the end of the evening to salute their war dead, and by extension the mother country itself. And there is of course violence in the form of the kangaroo hunt, a grisly, stomach-turning event in the filming of which no animal was unharmed. A sense-memory of this surfaces in David Michôd's 2010 movie Animal Kingdom, but it is nowhere near as brutally explicit. Gary Bond plays John, a discontented young teacher in a grim remote community who is planning to visit Sydney over the summer holidays, and to never return: he dreams of being a journalist in England. On the last day, he winces with disapproval at the big kid who has clearly been kept back in class a year or two. Imagine being stranded in this desolate place!

AV Club: In the outback town of Bundanyabba, known to locals simply as “The Yabba,” a scrum of aggressive drunks, three or four men deep, form a human gambling ring in the backroom of a bar. Scenes like this have played out in movies before, around, say, cockfighting or bare-knuckle boxing matches. But in the center of this ring is a “spinner” flipping two coins in the air: Heads or tails, place your bets, 50/50 odds. The mind-boggling stupidity of this ritual is crucial to Wake In Fright, a still-shocking 1971 Australian cult discovery. It’s not like these men are assessing body types or looking for flaws in beaks and talons; they’re letting it ride on a series of coin flips that favor the fortunate but not the wise. At this moment, there’s little distinguishing them from animals, other than the reckless élan of their instincts.

The New Yorker: Perhaps most eagerly discussed by critics is the film’s take on mateship, the camaraderie that genuinely exists in the country, yet is often mythicized. In the film it appears as comically ambiguous, a life-giving spring of easy fellowship and hospitality, but also a crutch for men acting up, an excuse for whatever happens while legless. Throughout the story, it requires all of Grant’s strength to decline offers of booze from friendly acquaintances or downright strangers; I lost count the number of times he’s told to drink up, or given a dirty look (what’s known as a “greasy”) whenever he doesn’t immediately slug down his glass.

Cinedelphia: But Wake in Fright isn’t just a provocative glimpse of life-on-the-edge and toxic masculinity, it’s also an example of superior craftsmanship. Director Ted Kotcheff runs a formally restrained, but nonetheless ravishing visual playbook, opting for a mostly mise-en-scène approach while still savoring moments to deploy ferociously potent montage effects. His opening shot, an elevated 360-degree pan across the desert landscape, effectively introduces the Outback as one of the key characters, in addition to establishing the desert environ as a dusty, earthbound purgatory; the recurring images of sweat beads dripping down human skin and blinding shafts of light impart on the viewer the sense of oppressive, maddening heat compounding Grant’s sojourn in the infernal Yabba. Kotcheff saves some his most charged effects for an unforgettable (and highly controversial) sequence wherein Grant, Tydon, and a few other mates go hunting for kangaroos. (It’s worth noting that several marsupial “extras” were slaughtered as part of a purported licensed hunt, for which Kotcheff and crew tagged along to capture footage for the film. Editor Anthony Buckley’s splicing of this documentary B-roll with the narrative elements is seamless to the point that one might question the validity of the filmmaker’s statement prior to the end credits.) Here, Kotcheff’s contrasting of the lush beauty of the Outback locales with the horrific barbary the characters indulge in yields, perhaps, the purest visual distillation of the movie’s central idea. Buckley’s classical cutting of the sequence is clean and tight, creating visual order and logic out of a chaotic narrative interlude; he shapes the shot flow for maximum effect, the succession of images generating tremendous tension. Even so, the technical wizardry on display might render the scene all too effective for some.

The Hollywood Reporter: The shocking brutality of this sequence, which includes obviously unfaked shootings of spotlight-stunned kangaroos, will disturb viewers accustomed to the disclaimer that "no animals were harmed" in a film's production. Kotcheff insists he feels the same way, saying he shot the footage while he and an ASPCA rep followed hunters who were going to slaughter these animals regardless. He integrates that material with scenes of actors so well, though, that audiences will swear they see the film's characters slaying live kangaroos themselves -- a nauseating culmination of the story's plan to dehumanize a character who believes he's above the untamed land he's stuck in.

Senses of Cinema: While critically acclaimed by such legends of the industry as Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert, the film found little commercial success within Australia. Perhaps the deterioration of Australia’s laid-back and stress free lifestyle into a mess of gambling, heavy drinking and wanton violence hit too close to home for local audiences. After all, Australia’s affiliation with alcohol has generally been thought relatively harmless, associated with our boisterous international perception, yet Wake In Fright depicts it as demonic, forced upon John until it strips him of his morals and eventually his sanity.

Despite the film’s ugliness it has gone on to influence countless other movies, in particular those in the subgenre that can now be defined as “outback survival”, such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) and, more recently, Wolf Creek (Greg Mclean, 2005). The film has experienced somewhat of a revival since its restoration in 2009 and can count itself as only one of two films to be screened at Cannes twice; once in 1971 and again when it was selected as a “Cannes Classic” in 2009. The enduring images of slaughtered kangaroos have made their way around the world, inspiring praise and outrage in equal measures. This is however not for their gratuitousness, but for what they represent – a film unafraid to dissect a national psyche in such a way that the villain of the film becomes the setting itself.

The Making Of Wake in Fright: Parts 1, 2, 3.

Streaming on Amazon Prime
posted by MoonOrb (3 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
One of the creepiest fucking movies I've ever seen! How did you happen to stumble on this, MoonOrb? The Bundanyabba two-up scenes are ... *shudder*. They set the tone so perfectly for everything that is to come.
posted by MiraK at 11:26 PM on June 6, 2020

Currently streaming on Shudder.
posted by miss-lapin at 2:06 PM on June 7, 2020

Wake In Fright is creepy and unsettling, a favourite. I came to it via Ted Kotcheff, the director, a Canadian who had been kicking around the UK & the US. He's a solid director with a wildly inconsistent but respectable filmography: First Blood (based on a book by another expat Canadian David Morrell), Weekend at Bernie's, a couple decent Mordecai Richler adaptations (Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz & Joshua Then and Now), among many TV credits.

This caught my eye from the Making of Part 1:
“At the time people were telling me, 'Kotcheff how did you have the temerity to go and make a film about a culture that you know nothing about?', but I felt I knew these people. Canada is not that different from Australia, its an empty country where 99 percent of the population lives within 100 miles of the US border and for the next 800 miles north there is nobody…its people trapped in empty spaces. Australia is Canada, but on the rocks!”
There's a lot of truth to that.
posted by Ashwagandha at 4:43 PM on June 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

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