Film Review: Wake in Fright

Briefly released in the U.S. in 1972 as <i>Outback</i>, shorn of several minutes of violence and considered lost until 2002, <i>Wake in Fright</i> is the anti-<i>Crocodile Dundee</i>, a portrait of Australia as a drunken, violent, sexually perverse back

John Grant (Gary Bond) has just graduated from university at government expense, which isn't to say his education was free; he's obligated to spend three years teaching in underserved outback communities or pay the full freight. Which is how he winds up condemned to a one-room schoolhouse in Tiboonda, an isolated inland hell of suffocating heat, dust and boredom where everything about the city-bred Grant—from his manners to his temperate drinking—is suspect. The prospect of spending his Christmas break back in Sydney is all that stands between Grant and the abyss.

The nearest airport is in Bundanyabba (closely modeled on the real-life mining town Broken Hill), a slightly larger hellhole where he'll have to spend the night before boarding his plane—a small price to pay for six weeks by the sea with his pretty girlfriend. But cruel fate has other plans.

Grant's descent into hell begins innocuously enough, just a cold beer at the local bar with friendly police constable Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), who—like everyone he meets—declares the Yabba "the best little town in the world." Crawford buys a round (or is it two?) and explains the rules of two-up, a deceptively simple, high-stakes variation on pitching pennies much loved by the locals. More than a little drunk—as much on the thought of winning enough to pay off his bond as beer—Grant gambles away all his cash and is forced to rely on the kindness of strangers.

And that's when he learns that superficially friendly though the Yabba may be, everything comes at a price: The desperate Janette (Sylvia Kay, director Ted Kotcheff’s then-wife) tries to seduce him, alcoholic hail-fellow-well-met “Doc” Tydon (Donald Pleasence)—the closest thing to a cultured man in town—bullies him into joining a brutal kangaroo hunt with pals Dick (Breaker Morant's Jack Thompson, in his feature debut) and Joe (Peter Whittle) and…well, let's just say it gets worse.

Canadian filmmaker Kotcheff’s checkered career has ranged from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) to North Dallas Forty (1979) and First Blood (1982, a better movie than it has any right to be), to the depths of corpse-bothering comedy Weekend at Bernie's (1989). Wake in Fright was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, championed by Martin Scorsese and praised by The New York Times' Roger Greenspun, neither a pushover nor an apologist for guilty pleasures. And then…nothing; it slipped off the radar, a ghost of a supposed lost classic represented by a handful of battered prints until its original editor and tireless champion, Anthony Buckley, unearthed a negative in a U.S. storage facility. Unlike many such "lost" treasures, Wake in Fright lives up to its nightmarish reputation, from its lacerating critique of the notion that masculinity is the reductive sum of misogyny, homophobia and reflexive cruelty to Donald Pleasence's performance as Doc, which is unforgettable in both the best and the worst sense of that word.