Martin Scorcese said, “‘Wake in Fright’ is a deeply—and I mean deeply—disturbing movie.”
That’s not to say Scorcese didn’t like it. He’d seen the film at its 1971 Cannes Film Festival premiere and was impressed enough to include it at the 2009 Cannes when he guest curated. “Wake in Fright” is one of only two films that have ever appeared at Cannes twice. Nick Cave calls the movie “the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence.”
Copies of “Wake in Fright” were nowhere to be found. Finally, after a ten-year search by the film’s editor, Anthony Buckley, the negative was located in canisters marked for destruction. Only one week away from incineration, the National Film and Sound Archives of Australia had the film painstakingly restored frame by frame.
Now, in honor of its fortieth anniversary, “Wake in Fright” opens theatrically this Friday, October 5, 2012 in New York City. The movie is directed by Ted Kotcheff and stars Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence and Chips Rafferty. Evan Jones wrote the screenplay based on Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the same name.
The story opens with a sweeping panorama of desolate wasteland in the hot Australian outback. It zooms in on a classroom of bored impatient children watching the clock while teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) sits at his desk silently.
As the tale unfolds we learn that John is restless, irritable and discontent—stuck in a job he hates, yearning for something more to life and fantasizing about the woman he’s eager to be with in Sydney during Christmas break.
With a small suitcase and everything he owns, John stands at the local train “station” which consists only of a wooden sign with the name of the town “Tiboonda.” The sign is crudely nailed to a six-foot wobbly wood platform and the scene is very Twilight Zone-ish.
On his way to Sydney he must stop over one night in a small mining town named Bundanyabba — “The Yabba” as the villagers call it. To pass time John goes to a bar for an ice-cold beer. With British accent and proper values, John is clearly out of place and repulsed by the low-class, rowdy and “stupid” locals.
John’s entry into madness begins innocently enough when a policeman insists on buying him drinks as a welcome to Yabba. John’s alcoholism quickly becomes apparent as he knocks back beer after beer. We witness his personality and perceptions changing. Drunkenly he stumbles over to a big crowd playing two-up. It’s a coin toss game that he views as pathetically simple. Bored, he decides to bet and wins fistfuls of cash. Elated, he decides to do it again—a grave mistake.
His evening goes terribly awry, he loses all of his winnings plus his holiday pay and ends up stranded with hard-drinking and violent derelicts. The audience watches helplessly as John drinks himself into moral degradation until he is absolutely unrecognizable.
It is an absorbing, yet stomach-turning film. Animal lovers should cover their eyes during the brutal hunting scene. A disclaimer at the end reads, “Photography of the hunting scenes in this film took place during an actual kangaroo hunt conducted by licensed professional hunters.” Implying that it’s okay to torture and kill real kangaroos as long as you’re a real hunter.
Still, even with the gore, the award-winning film is fascinating with stylized storytelling, a strong musical score, and rapid-fire images depicting John’s jumbled thoughts. This flick will haunt you for a long, long time.
Rated R. 114 minutes. “Wake in Fright” opens October 5, 2012 at the Film Forum, 209 Houston Street and director Ted Kotcheff will appear to introduce the film October 5 and 6 at 7:30 p.m.