Director : Ted Kotcheff
Written by : Evan Jones & Kenneth Cook
Every once in a while you come across a movie that answers questions you didn’t even know you needed asking. Without even being aware of it’s existence, there is an instant familarity with Wake in Fright (or Outback as it is known internationally). It was made in 1971, but it was never shown on TV in Australia and wasn’t available on video or DVD until 2008, so whole generations have never seen it. Catching up with it via Netflix is a revelation.
It opens with a slow camera pan showing the orange dusted emptiness of the outback, filled only by a railway line, a lonely platform, and two small buildings. On the inside of one building are school children of various ages sitting silent and sweaty waiting to be dismissed for the summer holidays. Teacher, John Grant (Greg Bond), lets them go and is itching to get out of there as well. The second building is the pub, where John has a room. But while he stays there, he is not of there and everything about him separates him from the locals. His clothes are too fancy, his sunglasses too cool and his general demeanor to haughty. When he leaves for Sydney to visit his girlfriend he hopes never to return. But the train only takes him as far as Yabba, a fictional stand-in for Broken Hill, and he has to survive the night before his morning flight to the city.
Beer drinking is established as a strong theme early, but when John walks into the Yabba pub, it escalates quickly. He is spotted by local policemen, Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), as the fish out of water that he is, and in a disconcerting exchange where John is forced to skol multiple beers in a show of aggressive friendliness, much of the track of the rest of the movie is laid.
Despite receiving world- wide success and critical acclaim, Australians audiences stayed away and railed against their portrayal, and it’s easy to see why. This isn’t the side of your culture that you wish the rest of the world to see, and Director Ted Kotcheff’s spotlight is far too bright and the focus much to narrow.
The confronting realism forces you to consider your own relationship with alcohol. You remember the times when you were the wide-eyed newbie, encouraged to drink more, but unsure of your capacity to do so. Then, more disconcertingly, you recall when you were more sure of your stamina and you transitioned into the Jock role, looking down with disdain on anyone who can’t keep pace. It’s an odd feeling to see your own reflection in a movie made before you were born.
Kotcheff’s direction is brilliant throughout and feels completely modern. With every encounter that John has there is a moment of hope that is quickly subverted, and the sense of tension builds again. Many of the performances are so spot on that you’d swear these were locals rather than actors. Bond plays his middle class everyman nicely, Rafferty is perfectly cast and Donald Pleasance steals the movie as the alcoholic Doc who loves living in Yabba because his affliction goes unnoticed.
The influences of Wake in Fright are easy to see. in more modern times. When the Simpsons came “Down Under” it seemed a harsh comment on the country, but now the reference point makes sense. Even Crocodile Dundee, made fifteen years later, seems to be an apology of sorts. While still displaying the boozy elements, Dundee aimed for laughs rather than menace, and they had the kangaroos shooting back.
Wake in Fright is billed as a horror movie, but there are no monsters or serial killers to be seen. It’s only the threat of succumbing to the toxic culture of the town that is to be feared. Even forty five years later, it's still disturbing viewing, and if you happen to be Australian, as uncomfortable to swallow as one of Doc’s warm beers.
A Must See