Wake in Fright: Film Review
Friday, Oct. 5 (Drafthouse Films)
Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Jack Thompson, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay
A restoration of Ted Kotcheff's 1971 film firmly establishes its place within the Aussie film renaissance.
A Deliverance-flavored Australian horror tale whose out-of-his-depth protagonist doesn't have the benefit of buddies traveling alongside him, Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright envisions the dark side of the stereotype of hard-drinking but easy-going Outback dwellers. Restored after decades of obscurity (it has been practically unknown Stateside since its botched original release), the picture is fresh and frightening, a strong arthouse contender certain to leave audiences talking.
Despite being scripted by a man who'd never visited the country and directed by one who arrived shortly before production, the picture benefits from a thoroughly convincing sense of place. Beginning with a slow, 360-degree pan, it establishes the isolation in which protagonist John Grant (Gary Bond) lives and works: two buildings on a scrubby plain, connected to the unseen world by a lonely stretch of railroad. A teacher who doesn't want to be stuck out here, Grant sets out for his Christmas break hoping never to return. He intends to catch a plane to Sydney in nearby Bundanyabba, but never makes it out of the Outback.
In Bundanyabba, Grant encounters locals whose brand of hospitality feels like aggression. A local cop meets him in a bar and practically pours beer down his throat, then introduces him to a backroom gambling den where betting is boiled down to its existential core: Men wager entire paychecks on the flip of a coin. Grant, blackout-drunk, loses all his money.
While trying to figure out what to do the next day, he again is victim of "Yabba" residents whose generosity becomes a burden. He falls in with a handful of men and goes on a bender -- Kotcheff's uneasy camera perfectly capturing the way friendly beer-swilling devolves into bad choices and half-remembered depravity. This mix of the friendly with the sinister congeals in the character of a doctor whose alcoholism forced him out of practice: Donald Pleasence's performance is memorably unsettling.
The mood of sweaty alienation and icky sexuality is already compelling before the movie finds its defining set piece: Almost too drunk to stand, the boys get rifles and drive into the night to hunt kangaroos.
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.
Production Companies: Group W, NLT
Cast: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Jack Thompson, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Screenwriter: Evan Jones, based on the novel by Kenneth Cook
Producer: George Willoughby
Executive producers: Howard G. Barnes, Bill Harmon, Maurice Singer
Director of photography: Brian West
Production designer: Dennis Gentle
Music: Niclas Schak, Tin Soheili
Costume designer: Ron Williams
Editor: Anthony Buckley
No rating, 108 minutes