Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With Mad Max speeding back into theaters, we go Down Under for some Ozploitation classics.
Wake In Fright (1971)
Boiled down to their absolute essence, thrillers release tension. Characters are tormented over the course of a narrative, and that torment is exorcised in a climax that hinges on some variation of violent resolution. No matter how disturbingly the violence is rendered, it serves as a relief for audiences, returning them full-circle to the status quo they enjoyed before they bought a theater ticket or sat in their easy chair and clicked something on demand. And it’s this very transaction that Wake In Fright pointedly refuses to engage in; it leads the audience off into the metaphorical wilderness of potential violence and abandons them there without a compass.
The film is staged as a long, slow burn that deliberately prepares the viewer for the bloody third-act catharsis of a traditional thriller. Like many Australian psychodramas, particularly those that made their way to the United States in the ’70s and ’80s, Wake In Fright is concerned with stagnant masculinity, with the frustrated, unstimulated egos of men who spend their lives in small villages in the dusty Outback desert with little to engage them apart from booze, trucks, and hunting. Director Ted Kotcheff opens the film on a startlingly bleak and beautiful image of a desert vista, gradually moving the camera in an uncomfortably long 360-degree pirouette. This shot will come to embody the Sisyphean odyssey of drunken self-loathing embarked upon by the film’s ostensible hero, John Grant (Gary Bond), an elitist teacher stuck serving out an education bond in a shack of a school out in the middle of nowhere.
In fragments, we learn that John is haunted by the image of his beautiful girlfriend on the beach, and that he’s to visit her in Sydney while out of school for Christmas holiday. Stopped over in a mining town of Bundanyabba (quasi-affectionately known to the locals as “The Yabba”) for a night before theoretically taking a train to Sydney the next day, John gets loaded with a local cop and loses all of his money while betting on an elaborate game of heads or tails. Stranded, rudderless, John drifts further into The Yabba’s underworld, eventually participating in a brutal kangaroo-hunting trip that controversially features authentic footage of animal slaughter, which culminates in John’s senseless murder of a young “’roo.”
Throughout all this, Kotcheff nimbly surveys the faces of the so-called Good Samaritans who learn of John’s plight and ply him with an amount of booze that’s astonishing even for an advanced alcoholic, while relentlessly pushing him to act out on the rage that’s bluntly discernible in his priggish detachment. The tension builds, especially when a lone woman enters the fray, but the bubble of the inherent violence is never popped with (human) murder or rape. The kangaroo-hunting sequence, as unnerving as it is, doesn’t dispel anything because it’s understood to serve as surrogate carnage, a blood ritual that prevents these men from eating one another alive. John eventually tries to kill himself, and even that is interrupted, which scans as a weirdly unhappy turn of events in this context, because suicide would at least signal resolution.
Wake In Fright reveals itself to be a terrifying non-thriller. Its refusal to provide genre release provokes a stymied response in the audience that parallels the feelings of the film’s characters, who are stuck repeating cycles of primordial aggression. John’s fall from grace underscores the fault line that separates social pretension from anarchy.
Availability: Wake In Fright is available on Blu-ray and DVD through Amazon, Netflix, or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.