First released in 1971, Wake in Fright (known in some quarters as Outback) made a splash at Cannes and was well received by international critics, if not audiences. A subject of controversy in its home country of Australia because of its portrayal of rural communities and scenes of animal cruelty, the film mostly disappeared until a 2009 restoration. Now it is receiving a widespread re-release (including a second run at Cannes — only the second film to do so). While not exactly the lost classic it’s touted as, Wake in Fright is well worth discovering (or re-discovering), and provides yet more evidence of the richness of world cinema in the early 1970s.
Bonded schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond), assigned to rural Tiboonda (which the opening 360-degree pan pinpoints as the middle of nowhere), travels by train to the slightly more inhabited Bundanyabba, where he plans to catch a plane to Sydney for the summer holiday. “The Yabba,” as the locals call it, proves to be a hellhole where there’s nothing to do but drink, gamble, hunt, fight, and fuck (in that order: the men of the Yabba expend the majority of their time and energy on the first activity). Grant observes a gambling game he initially dismisses as “simple minded,” but comes to regard as a way to collect enough money to buy his way out of his remote teaching post. After a brief winning streak he loses all his cash and finds himself stuck in Bundanyabba, unable to afford airfare. Aided and abetted by the alcoholic Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance) — who, as an educated man resigned to a life in the Outback, serves as an intercessor — he falls in with some local men who regard an unwillingness to swallow a beer in one gulp as a personal affront. They’re clearly louts, but Grant is too blinkered by his own urban cynicism and snobbery to play along or even dance around them.
Unlike such contemporaneous Australian films as Walkabout and The Last Wave, which explored unbridgeable differences between aboriginal and European-descended cultures, Wake in Fright hinges on a clash between two classes of white society. It critiques the arrogance and ignorance of both sets, especially their concepts of maleness. In this respect, it has much in common with other 70s deconstructions of masculinity like Straw Dogs and Deliverance, especially when Grant, almost involuntarily, becomes one of the men he disdains. The tipping point is a brutal kangaroo hunt that uses actual footage of the animals being shot and killed (which the producers position, in a disclaimer, as an expose of this practice).
Wake in Fright achieves a pervasive sense of menace, not only through what Grant describes as the locals’ “aggressive hospitality” but also through such details as the pile of stuff that lies on a barroom counter before Grant, not immediately discernible as peanut shells. It also makes the heat of its setting visceral, from the sun-baked exteriors to Grant’s sweat-slick torso to the hotel receptionist who bares her damp throat to an electric fan. Bond (who resembles both Peter O’Toole and Richard Chamberlain) is fine as a supercilious man who comes to realize that he doesn’t know himself as well as he thinks, but the real treat is Pleasance, who sacrifices none of his trademark entertainment value in giving the kind of complex performance he was capable of when he respected the material. Director Ted Kotcheff went on to assemble an almost schizophrenic oeuvre, from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz to First Blood to Weekend at Bernie’s, but never again would he make a film quite so distinctive and unsettling.