Wake in Fright - SideReel Review
In posterity, Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright may be remembered more vividly for the incredible events that saved the picture from extinction than for the strength of its content. For reasons that remain unknown, the movie nearly faded into oblivion -- as of the early ’90s, only two prints existed, both in unsatisfactory condition, and the negatives appeared to have vanished from the face of the Earth. But in 2004, a small miracle transpired when a conservator discovered a crate in a Pittsburgh warehouse that had been earmarked for disposal, and found deteriorating negatives of Wake in Fright inside. Thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorsese, employees of the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, and others, a grueling restoration effort took place over the next several years, followed by festival screenings, a remastering, and ultimately, an international DVD release -- which not only rescued the film, but pushed back into the limelight one of the seminal, long-forgotten works of New Australian Cinema.
The movie itself is both an incredible find and a real curiosity. The late Gary Bond stars as John Grant, an Australian man despondent over the sad state of his life. Although he harbors serious journalistic ambitions, he has become "a slave" to the Aussie educational system. This means biding out his time teaching primary schoolers in an arid, depressing backwater called Tiboonda, which consists of only a railroad and two buildings -- it’s a mystery how anyone could actually manage to live in this desolate hellhole. Christmas vacation arrives at the height of the Australian summer, and en route to Sydney to see his girlfriend, Grant stops for the night in the nearby town of Bundanyabba. He promptly loses all of his money in an illegal gambling den, and then falls into the throes of a group of Aussie men who spend their days drinking, whoring, raising hell, and embarking on grisly, brutal hunting expeditions.
The story itself is essentially a thinly veiled reworking of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with Grant as the Marlow character who embarks on a journey into the blackness of his own capacity for evil, and by extension, the savagery of humankind itself. This film even has its own Kurtz equivalent, a renegade alcoholic physician named Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence), who serves as a kind of Charon to the schoolteacher, conducting this innocent through the depths of hell one miserable drunken evening that ends at the nadir of personal debasement. To the credit of Kotcheff, a first-rate cast, and screenwriter Evan Jones (who adapted Kenneth Cook’s novel), the drama succeeds at taking events that could seem banal or trite in lesser hands and making them feral, ferocious, and even repulsive. One of the keys to the persuasiveness of the central horror is the partiality of Grant’s degeneration into savagery -- in lieu of deteriorating completely, he merely regresses enough to witness and recognize his own inexorable degradation -- and we feel it, organically, with him -- the ease, for example with which he wrestles a wounded baby kangaroo to the ground and slits its throat open, simply because the other men are goading him to do so.
The other work that this drama recalls is Fred Schepisi’s A Cry in the Dark (1988). Like that equally remarkable picture, this etches out one of the most damning, merciless profiles of Australian society in movie history. It makes the prototypical Aussie male seem scarcely more evolved than a carnivorous, lecherous beast of the wild -- and, by extension, Kotcheff and Jones bring the entire country’s national character into question. It is difficult to imagine many Aussie viewers responding enthusiastically to this picture, but equally improbable that anyone could seriously challenge the movie’s credibility, which one never doubts. The film’s only flaw is a minor one: Some of the stylistic devices, such as the rapid-fire montages of vile and depraved images, have aged poorly. But that in no way detracts from the visceral power of the backslide into the abyss that we experience along with the central character.