Directed in 1971 by Ted Kotcheff (“The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” “Fun with Dick and Jane,” “North Dallas Forty”) and adapted from the bestselling novel by Kenneth Cook, “Wake In Fright” hits movie screens this week with more fanfare than in its initial release. Receiving accolades from filmmakers and critics, “Wake In Fright” is an existential tale of the Australian outback, as disturbing today as when it screened in the Official Competition category at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971.
In 2012 reviews and press packets, the film’s champion, Martin Scorsese, is repeatedly quoted for his infectious enthusiasm for the restored classic:
“‘Wake In Fright’ is a deeply – and I mean deeply – unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971, and it left me speechless. Visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically, its beautifully calibrated and it gets under your skin one encounter at a time, right along with the protagonist played by Gary Bond. I’m excited that ‘Wake In Fright’ has been preserved and restored and that it is finally getting the exposure it deserves.”
How can one resist seeing a film with such a sterling recommendation by Scorsese? If you’re a film buff, you can’t. In a limited run, “Wake In Fright” premieres this week in Los Angeles for an exclusive one-week stay at the Nuart Theatre, moves to the IFC Theatre in New York, and continues to roll out to select cities over the next few months.
Part “Walkabout,” part “Deliverance,” “Wake in Fright,” stars Gary Bond as British schoolteacher, John Grant, bonded to service of a one-room class in the bleak outback town of Tiboonda. For his Christmas holiday break, Grant travels to a bigger mining town of Bundanyabba for one night before flying out to Sydney to meet his girlfriend and enjoy the beaches.
But this one stop in Bundanyabba will change Grant’s life indefinitely. At a gambling hall, he’s led around by a beer-drinking officer, Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty) and Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence), and taught the game of “spinners” where specified men (spinners) flip two coins for heads or tails while men bet money on the results.
After an infinite number of drinks (this film induces a hangover just by viewing), and unsuccessful game play, Grant finds a different direction for his holiday break. Introduced to a load of hardscrabble, drunken men, Grant sets off for five days of debauchery.
Kotcheff, screenwriter Evan Jones, and cinematographer Brian West do an excellent job in capturing the sunbaked desert landscape of the Australian outback, along with the hallucinatory vibe of the drunken men’s weekend. Jump cuts, flash frames, and audio blasts are used to great effect to mark Grant’s internal conflicts. Shocking scenes of a viciously brutal and bloody kangaroo hunt further pulls the once innocent Grant into the desolate lives and souls of his new “mates.”
[Kotcheff has repeatedly gone on record in his film production notes and in interviews, stating that no kangaroos were hurt for his film, and that the Royal Australian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was always present on set. However, Kotcheff did film lawfully licensed kangaroo hunters, who nightly slaughtered the animals for their furs, meat and by-products, and then cut this into his film. Regardless, these scenes are difficult to watch.]
“Wake In Fright” is both an astounding and upsetting film. Yet it captures a movement in 1970’s Australian cinema that, as Scorsese remarks, deserves exposure.
“Wake In Fright” is 116 minutes and Not Rated. It opens October 19 in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre, as well as other select cities.
For other film reviews by Lori Huck, check out:
‘Smashed’ Film Review: A Personal Take on Drinking and Relationships
‘The Paperboy’ Review: McConaughey, Efron, Kidman Traverse a Dark World