The ’70s produced several films about civilized men descending into barbarism, but most of these pictures were predicated on the notion of violence begetting violence. For example, in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), the hero embraces brutality to protect his home from attackers. The disturbing Australian drama Wake in Fright—originally released in the U.S. as Outback—takes a different route. In this movie, a genteel teacher becomes stranded in Australia’s rugged interior, and then slowly begins to emulate the animalism of bored rural types who pass their time by drinking, fighting, gambling hunting, and screwing. Wake in Fright is a slow burn, but once things click about an hour into the film, the story assumes the quality of a nightmare. (Fair warning: If you find kangaroos adorable, you will have a hard time watching this picture’s gory hunting scenes, which feature real animals getting killed onscreen.)
English actor Gary Bond, whose lanky frame and tanned skin make him look like a dark-eyed version of Peter O’Toole, plays John Grant, the instructor at a one-room schoolhouse in Tiboonda, Australia. On Christmas break, John heads for a vacation in Sydney by train, only to get delayed in the desolate city of Bundanyabba. While stuck in “The Yabba,” as the locals refer to the place, John loses all his cash gambling, so he has no choice but to rely on the kindness of strangers. Unfortunately, those strangers include such outback eccentrics as “Doc” Tydon (Donald Pleasence) and his drinking buddies. These wild men consume beer like normal human beings inhale oxygen, and their idea of a good time is driving around the countryside, killing animals, smashing private property, and throttling each other during vicious fistfights and wrestling matches. Yet as the days drag endlessly on, John falls into his new acquaintances’ behavior patterns. How deeply John travels into the moral abyss is best discovered while watching the movie, but suffice to say the John Grant who staggers out of “The Yabba” after his darkest night of sex and violence bears only a fleeting resemblance to the man who began the journey.
Director Ted Kotcheff, a journeyman Canadian who made films in a startling variety of genres, shoots Wake in Fright stylishly, merging haunting standalone images—that shot of Pleasence with coins over his eyes!—with elegant camera movements during dialogue scenes. Throughout the picture, Kotcheff’s direction of actors, visuals, and sound is focused and purposeful. In fact, even though he made several films that were more accessible, including the sleek comedy Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978) and the vivid actioner First Blood (1982), Wake in Fright might well be Kotcheff’s finest hour as a cinema artist.
Perhaps because he’s not Australian, Bond lends a believable tension to the story, approaching the weirdness of the outback from an external perspective until his character is co-opted into madness. Pleasence channels otherworldliness as only he can, and he spices his role with ambiguous sexuality. (Kotcheff fleshes out the cast with a variety macho men and put-upon women, conveying the sense of rural Australia as a primeval battleground.) Wake in Fright is infused with vivid textures, from the coarse dirt beneath the characters’ feet to the humid air that makes everyone sweat relentlessly. Wake in Fright leaves many crucial narrative questions unanswered, but some of the images it presents are scalding.
Wake in Fright: GROOVY