Wake in Fright (1971) review

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Who’d have thought the director of Weekend at Bernie’s had a classic in him? No, I’m not talking about First Blood, though that is a pretty damn good film. I’m talking about Ted Kotcheff’s far earlier Australian set-nightmare Wake in Fright (1971), which is getting a well-deserved re-release this month and is one of the best thrillers of the 1970’s. You can feel the heat burning off the screen, smell the sweat and taste the beer in abundance. It drips with atmosphere throughout. It’s also notorious for actual footage of kangaroo hunting, with real killings shown on screen. These killings were actually recorded as part of an existing hunt, with the story footage based around it – the editing makes it all look as though the filmmakers and actors were the ones responsible for the deaths, but the disclaimer at the end insists the following:

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Now, given that the ‘survival of the Australian kangaroo is seriously threatened’, should this hunt have taken place at all, even if it was committed by ‘professional licensed hunters’? A look at Wikipedia reveals that the hunt went on for hours and was a drunken, grotesque shambles, and only halted when a power failure was set-up by the horrified crew. Should the footage have made it into the film? Well given that you could call the hunting sequence an indictment of this kind of behaviour, then yes, I suppose so. True, the rush of hunting is not denied (the high-speed photography of the hunters in pursuit is undeniably pulse-quickening), but the actual killings themselves are ugly and disturbing. Okay, it’s somewhat hypocritical of a reviewer like me who eats meat and dines at fast-food restaurants to bemoan the savagery of hunting, but there you go. I’m full of shit.

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John Grant (Gary Bond) is a frustrated teacher stuck with a single class-school in the middle of nowhere who is relieved that the Christmas holidays are here (remember, this is Australia, so the weather’s scorching hot this time of year) and that he can get to Sydney to visit his girlfriend. However, his journey requires a stop in the town of Bundanyabba (the ‘yabba’ for short) in order to catch a flight. Grant’s not impressed with the town, filled as it is with beer-swilling louts, but he’s got to spend the night one way or another, so off to the local pub it is, where he soon gets more than a few beers graciously bought for him by the local police chief. Seriously, beer seems to be the local currency in this town. Barely a moment goes by without another can being opened. Later on it’s suggested that to turn down a beer is the height of social unacceptability, so better get another one down you. The night’s drinking spills over into the back room, where a simple game of heads and tails brings in the crowd and before he knows it, a couple of lucky bets results in Grant raking in the cash. Stupidly, Grant ends up flat broke by betting all or nothing on heads in the hope that a huge win can free him of his necessity to work. Now he can’t even afford to get home, so it’s a case of getting by on the generosity of strangers (he’s not a sponge as such, given the almost aggressive hospitality of the locals) and finding himself sucked deeper and deeper into his darker side. This involves beer-drinking, sexual temptation, beer-drinking, $1 steaks, vandalism, beer-drinking, wanton stupidity, beer-drinking and, lest we forget, the drinking of beer. Grant’s not exactly a sympathetic character – he’s snobby and patronising right from the start, and he makes stupid decisions, but Gary Bond’s performance grabs you and pulls you up close, so we’re with him through it all whether we like it or not. There are future echoes of Straw Dogs and Deliverance throughout, what with the theme of liberal, civilised humanity reduced to animalistic savagery – the mensfolk in Yabba dismiss the only core female character (Sylvia Kay), leaving her to pick up after their rubbish and bemused that Grant would take the time to actually have a conversation with her when he could be drinking beer. Only the alcoholic local doctor, played by Donald Pleasance, seems to be half-aware of the arrested development of his town, but he seems to be happy being the big fish in a small pond who also gets to indulge his baser desires with shameless abandon, which reaches a low-point with the afore-mentioned kangaroo hunt. This is the inevitable destination of this town’s alpha-male, ultra-crude mentality, and this scene is pretty hard-going, yet admirably matter-of-fact and free of overt sensationalism. In fact, it’s weird to hear the sparsely used music score when it does appear – so realistic this film feels for the most part. Even the presence of the always recognisable Pleasance doesn’t distract from the real feel this experience conveys.

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The conclusion might come as a bit anti-climactic. It feels as though everything’s wrapped up nicely, and in a way it is, but the horrors of before linger on, and won’t be easy to forget. It’s a shame that this depiction of a descent towards darkness obliquely suggests that homosexuality is all part of the downslide. It’s not made obvious, but it’s certainly hinted that one of the reasons Grant realises he’s crossed the line is an apparent homosexual encounter with another character. After some drunken, intimate horseplay, the film cuts to the morning after, so we’ve not seen anything overtly obvious happens between them, so it’s all pretty vague. I just hope the film’s not saying that homosexuality is just further proof of a flawed character’s degeneracy or anything like that. Maybe the out-of-his-depth Grant feels that way, I suppose, but not the film?

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Overall though, this is a searing, burning experience, and it’s brilliant to see it fully restored and looking so good  – it’s one of the best Australian films I’ve ever seen (Ted Kotcheff’s Canadian, incidentally) and a must-watch.

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