Wake in Fright (1971)

Dir. Ted Kotcheff. Starring Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty

The following review addresses what might reasonably be referred to as animal cruelty.

“All the little devils are proud of Hell,” Doc (Pleasence) mumbles by way of greeting. It’s at that moment that I knew that Wake in Fright would be strong medicine; forty-some years later, this is a movie that still works on the same wavelength as its recent descendants Hunger and We Need to Talk About Kevin. Wake in Fright is a hazed teenager thrown into a dryer, scared and disoriented and sick all over itself. It is also totally unforgettable, an extraordinarily well-made movie, and as essential to Australian cinema as All the King’s Men is to American literature. It’s not so much that the two are like each other, but both texts have this unflinching gaze set on the disease of their time and place. They also recognize that the symptoms, the boils on a body stricken with plague, hold just as much fascination for a casual onlooker as the pathology itself would for a specialist.

There are three locations in Wake in Fright which matter: the heaven of Sydney, the purgatory of Tiboonda, and the hell of the Yabba. Compared to Tiboonda, where John (Bond) begins this circuitous Christmas odyssey, Bundanyabba is crowded. It is filled with the heat and the sweat and the life, to borrow from Fitzgerald, and already that makes a stark change from where John hails from; Tiboonda is only the heat and the sweat.  Meaningfully, Sydney is reduced to a beach dream in this movie, where John and Robyn will fool around on the shoreline, she in her deliriously sixties swimsuit and he on his back, placing the lip of his beer bottle in her cleavage. Tiboonda, where the movie begins (and ends), is introduced in a brilliant 360° shot that is a masterclass in two elements: depicting blue-orange contrast without leaning on a digital colorist, and exemplifying the old joke about “you can watch your dog run away for three days.” John only has the one friend, Charlie (John Meillon), and the friendship appears to be limited to lazy drinking over a dusty bar; John’s sensitivities, like novels or sketches, are kept in his little room. Some of the best parts of the movie are in Tiboonda because they so perfectly showcase the monotony of the town through neon monotones. I can close my eyes and visualize this snot-from-your-sinus-infection yellow-green that looks like it was shot through a socket; Kotcheff puts that all over walls in Tiboonda and Bundanyabba alike. Everything is bathed in it, just like John’s hotel room is bathed in red or his bedroom is bathed in dim browns.

The Tiboonda scenes and John’s first hour or two in the Yabba are essential to the picture, acting like the prosecutor building background on the man he’s trying to convict. John’s fantasy of his girlfriend, Robyn, depicts a man who is sex-starved after living like a bored monk for the past months. He takes a drink in the afternoon with Charlie before getting on the train, and picks up drinking rapidly once he lands in the Yabba. Conversations reveal the thoroughness of his discontent. All he got from his middle-class background was the condescension, and so he traded the government the cost of his university education for a contract tying him to a rural school district. The condescension he kept, though: stuck for a night in Bundanyabba because that’s where he’ll board his flight to Sydney, he is befriended by a local cop, Jock (Rafferty), who shows him around the nightlife. It’s predictably heavy on beer, and we cannot blame however many beers deep Jock is for how slowly he reacts to John’s distancing wryness. The bar, complete with slot machines and other amusements, stops for a moment. Someone on a microphone calls out a call and response, essentially, for the glorious wartime dead. “Lest we forget,” everyone murmurs. The microphone cuts off, the red light on the memorial fades, the slots and conversation ring up again. John is quietly incredulous.

Yet John doesn’t try to leave Jock, either. He hangs onto this new buddy all the way to a little joint where you can get a cheap steak dinner and gamble your brains out in the back. (A man tosses two coins in the air. The men bet if they’ll land heads or tails. The sums bet on each toss, adjusted for inflation, are easily in the thousands of dollars.) In the first night, John gets greedy. He has a few lucky bounces at gambling—Kotcheff, using symbolism-siren white spotlights to “shine a light” on the proceedings, makes the screaming atmosphere almost gladiatorial in its drama—and runs back to his hotel room. He counts the money. He is not far off from being able to buy his way out of his contract that keeps him in Tiboonda. He goes back to the gambling. He flings the coins. They land how he wants—he’s free!—but he didn’t throw them high enough. He tries again. Failure. He goes to his checkbook, other men laughing. He finds someone who will take on every dollar he has saved. The next morning, the camera, shooting from the ceiling in his room, looks down at a man as naked as the day he was born and filled with a lifetime’s worth of shame. He is stranded.

The rest of the film follows a man who, devoid of an audience who will believe his performance, joins an entirely different troupe. Bundanyabba’s great sin before was that it was tacky; in the back half of the movie, the Yabba is simply depraved. What’s incredible is not that he falls into line with the rest of the men of the Yabba, but how little time it takes. Other stories of “civilizers” who collapse into the sticky morass of mindless proletarians at least give the protagonist a few scenes to struggle nobly like a prehistoric ground sloth in the La Brea tar pits. John’s struggle is the limited one of a man who always had this rot going on underneath the surface, who was only ever looking for permission to drink himself into a stupor for days straight, to try to have consequences-free sex with the town slut (“try” is the operative word), to gamble every dollar he has but one in a single evening, to run down, shoot, or stab kangaroos to death to alleviate the immense boredom of the Outback. We can see where he’s going; Doc, who presents himself as the Thoreau of the Yabba, quickly proves to be as much part of the mass of men as anybody. He is a doctor, well-educated, and might still be practicing in Sydney if his alcoholism hadn’t obliterated him. Now he lives in a formless little shack, eats raw-looking kangaroo meat with ketchup from his skillet off his single metal utensil, indulges his animal wants when he pleases. He also has no money. John is aghast. You can live without money? he asks. Doc tells him that the people in the Yabba, amused by him and knowing his usefulness, spot him for his drinks and his meals. (This is a little romantic; Doc scrounges the fixings off of John’s plate when they first meet when John says he’s only after the steak.) He lives in this hole, comes out occasionally, crawls back in.

The Rules of the Game, in its most memorable scene, depicts aristocrats and their rich friends shooting little critters out of the sky and off the ground once their servants have managed to scare them out of their hiding places. Wake in Fright does exponentially more with that concept. Blindingly drunk, Dick (Jack Thompson), Joe (Peter Whittle), Doc, and John take rifles, a dog, and Joe’s car out one afternoon to hunt kangaroo and drink at a little middle-of-nowhere bar. The scene in the afternoon is difficult but not unprecedented. The dog they’ve brought with them is sent out to chase down a kangaroo, which she does successfully. They drink more than they should at the pub, but what else is new? It’s the scene at night which makes this movie infamous. Shining the spotlight in the kangaroos’ eyes, much the same as what happened to John a couple nights before, they proceed to gun down as many of them as they can. The camera takes it all in. None of it is faked, and frankly none of it looks faked, either. (It’s so gruesome that the movie ends with a producer’s note addressing the shooting. More research on the topic shows that the crew followed a bunch of licensed hunters, presumably planning to sell the kangaroos for dog food, out one night as they did their work.) The men cheer and laugh and empty their guns again and again. The word “senseless” is used so often that it’s lost much of its meaning, but the violence in this scene is genuinely senseless. For the Yabba men, the shooting is almost meaningless, as likely to be forgotten in the morning as any other memory. It is the indulgence of a moment. For John, who grabs one of the young kangaroos by the tail and stabs it to death (“it’s just a baby,” he protests at first), once again in that hypnotic spotlight, it is an assault on his own masculinity. He cannot drink like them; later that night, at the bar, he passes out while Dick and Joe and Doc wrestle each other and destroy the pub. He cannot screw like them; Janette (Sylvia Kay), has boned every guy in town, but when she tried to have him he started throwing up. He can kill like them, though. Wake in Fright shows it’s the only mark he has left to prove himself by.

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