What movie was that...?

27 April 2014

Wake in Fright

directed by Ted Kotcheff

I was having a conversation with a new friend about our favorite movies when Wake in Fright inevitably came up, and it suddenly occurred to me that I have never written about it before. Ted Kotcheff’s masterpiece of Australian cinema was lost for over 30 years, almost fated to die an anonymous death before being rescued at the eleventh hour by the film’s editor, Anthony Buckley (the only print he was able to locate was marked ‘for destruction’). The story of the film itself is fascinating, for years only known to me as a film I would ever hear about but never actually see, but thanks to Buckley’s tireless efforts, Wake in Fright is here to stay.

It’s hard to separate such a shocking, mesmerizing, astonishing work of art from its context, and indeed the physical and cultural landscape of the Australian outback is inextricably linked to the framing of plot, theme, and motif, but there are universal truths to be culled from the geographic isolation, the societal ritualism of drinking and reckless savagery, an ordinary man’s decent into darkness. It’s a film very much about masculinity and what wretchedness man is capable of, the outback serving as a dusty pressure cooker in which civilization languishes.

The film opens with a tremendous 360° scan of the minuscule town of Tiboonda, enveloped by stark desert on all sides, both setting the weighty tone and establishing the remoteness, the vacuum of reality into which we are going to venture. School is letting out for Christmas break, and John Grant, a sullen teacher, is anxious to get back to the city to see his girlfriend. He longs to be out from under the thumb of a government bond trapping him in the outback, to go to London to be a journalist. But a layover in a neighboring town (referred to as The Yabba) changes all of that. Grant swills beer with the local cop Jock Crawford and gambles away his savings, stranding him The Yabba for 6 weeks. Things begin to spiral quickly for Grant (played to perfection by Gary Bond) after he leaves Tiboonda, and we the audience are trapped in horror as we watch his deterioration. Relying on the quasi-hospitality of the locals, Grant begins to embrace the depravity within as he sucks down beer, ravages a pack of kangaroos and bears witness to (and takes part in) life on the fringes.

Australian history is one bulging with violence and savagery, and Kotcheff evokes this concept in his directing, depicting the rural outback village as a microcosm of Australia’s struggles as a whole, but in doing so without much politicizing (e.g. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, by contrast, is highly political and highly effective) Kotcheff creates a more universal and existentially terrifying world. The horrors of Wake in Fright are not simply a product of a geographically isolated region, nor are they some removed abstraction over which we (as American, British, French, Chinese, insert country of choice here) the non-Australian audience need not fret. As an American, I am ever aware of my country’s blood glutted history, and I could easily imagine regions of the nation where this story could very easily take place.

Every component of Wake in Fright is of the highest level, the acting is superb, the cinematography is brutal, the sound design and editing are devastating, a work of art that never leaves you. Donald Pleasence delivers a mammoth performance as Doc Tydon, Grant’s mysterious and intriguing companion through much of the film, and Gary Bond is phenomenal as our everyman sliding into the depths. One of the only films I would classify as essential viewing, Wake in Fright will surely change you.

PS it’s currently streaming on Netflix. You’re welcome.

For anyone interested, Nathan Southern had the opportunity to interview Ted Kotcheff last year about his work: