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Wake in Fright (aka Outback)
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by Jay Seaver

"Maybe not one to see with a beer."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Wake in Fright" is one of the most lauded films to come out of Australia, but went practically unseen for years (decades!) due to a poor commercial showing and the lack of quality prints. A ten-year search for the original negative and careful restoration has it back in circulation, looking good, and still frequently overpowering.

John Grant (Gary Bond) is an elementary school teacher in the Australian outback, and he hates it there. Christmas is coming, though, and with it summer break, which he intends to spend with his girlfriend in Sydney. Getting there means a stop in Bundanyabba, where he emerges from a night drinking with sheriff Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) without the money for his plane ticket or even for another night in the hotel. A man at the bar, Tim Hynes (Al Thomas), invites him to spend the night at his place, but the attention Grant pays his wife Janette (Sylvia Kay) doesn't go over so well, although "Doc" Tydon (Donald Pleasence) winds up being agreeable company to the stranded Grant.

"I'm an alcoholic", Tydon informs Grant, "but out here it's scarcely noticeable." And brother, is that ever the case. There may be movies where characters drink more, but likely few in which it is such a constant, desperate activity. The men of Wake in Fright drink like characters in old movies smoke, constantly and with the implication that nobody would conceivably not be doing so, because what would you be doing with yourself otherwise; when Grant briefly opts to do something else, the rest are thoroughly confused. The first half of the movie gives the impression of starting a bender - starting out in control, but with fun/relief not coming; instead, the reasons for drinking seem to come into sharper relief, with the attempts to banish them with more drink only making things worse.

Then the second half becomes a fever dream. By this point, the almost complete lack of any female presence is making the men crazy, fights are being started just to let aggression out, and while director Ted Kotcheff and company don't change the look of the film so much, things get more and more frenzied, with the high (or low) point being a kangaroo hunt that just seems like madness. Kotcheff filmed the actual activity rather than using animatronics or any sort of special effects, so it's not just realistic, but real (though no roos were killed specifically for the film; this was going on anyway), and there's a frightening inhumanity to it. As this part of the movie goes on the audience feels how the combination of heat, isolation, and lack of a positive emotional outlet creates this all-consuming madness.

The cast does so, too. Gary Bond is extremely impressive, hitting every step in Grant's descent from smug superiority to mania squarely, giving us early hints that the possibility of this exists in him from the start, though "The Yabba" is going to bring it out. Rafferty and Thomas play two faces of the place's enforced jocularity, friendly but intolerant and insistent. It leaves Pleasence as the most stable of the bunch, and he knows that he's an utter mess.

It's also an expertly-constructed film visually. Kotcheff and cinematographer Brian West do a really marvelous job of capturing both the grand beauty of the outback when viewed as a panorama and the hot, punishing, fly-infested reality up close. Many little details are perfect, like how the train station clock in the opening shot has no hands. It's all directed to showing just what sort of madness this world can induce.

An amazing film; the idea that it might have been lost forever is genuinely horrifying, but that's thankfully not the case.

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originally posted: 07/30/11 23:50:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Actionfest 2010 For more in the Actionfest 2010 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

User Comments

5/24/19 Louise (the real one) First half was OK. Had to abandon it during the kangaroo hunt. Horrible. 2 stars
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  20-Feb-1972 (R)


  N/A (M)

Directed by
  Ted Kotcheff

Written by
  Evan Jones

  Donald Pleasence
  Gary Bond
  Chips Rafferty
  Sylvia Kay
  Jack Thompson

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