The opening shot of Ted Kotcheff's psychological drama Wake in Fright is an ominous 360-degree pan of the Australian outback, a cracked and infertile ground still haunted by the country's bloody colonial past. As the camera slowly revolves, recording the vast and debilitating emptiness, Kotcheff signals that his film will be intrinsically tied to its setting. The landscape may seem nondescript, but it quickly becomes the natural backdrop for a story of two men whose mutually destructive relationship evokes mankind's most brutal tendencies.
When Wake in Fright competed for the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1971, those in attendance are said to have responded positively (among them was Martin Scorsese, who claims to have loved the film even as it disturbed him). Yet the movie flopped at home, where audiences reportedly found it exploitative. In Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years, Graham Shirley and Brian Adams speculate that Wake in Fright was "too uncomfortably direct and uncompromising to draw large Australian audiences." It paints an unsavory and disparaging picture of Australian culture, and the fact that it was directed by a Canadian and starred a pair of Brits didn't help (though it's worth noting that the source material was a novel by Australian writer Kenneth Cook).
The movie didn't fare much better in America, where it was retitled Outback and marketed to the grindhouse crowd. But when it was finally released on DVD in 2009—the film's editor found the last remaining print in a condemned warehouse in Pittsburgh—it was heralded as a masterpiece. Musician-turned-sceenwriter Nick Cave (Lawless, The Proposition) has called it "the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence." It screens this week at Gene Siskel Film Center in a restored 35-millimeter print, courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.
The protagonist of Wake in Fright is John Grant (Gary Bond), an arrogant schoolteacher from Sydney who's been shipped off to a school in a remote township by the Australian government in order to pay back his student loans. Angered by this assignment, Grant resents the culture and people of the outback. During his Christmas break he plans to visit his girlfriend back home, which requires him to travel by train to the mining town Bundanyabba—or simply "the Yabba," as the locals call it—stay overnight, and catch a plane to Sydney in the morning.
In the Yabba, Grant is befriended by a local policeman, Jock Crawford (legendary Aussie actor Chips Rafferty in his final role), who offers him a copious amount of beer before introducing him to a large group of men playing two-up, a popular Australian game in which two coins are tossed into the air and players bet on whether they'll land heads, tails, or mixed. Grant joins the game and, much to his surprise and elation, hits a hot streak. Well lubricated and hoping to win enough money to pay off his debt, he bets everything he's got on a single flip but loses his shirt and, unable to leave town, becomes dependent on the aggressive hospitality of the locals, who condition him to their brutish lifestyle.
This lifestyle seems to consist entirely of constant drinking, random fistfights, anarchic destruction of other people's property, and kangaroo hunting—the last of which is depicted in two graphic sequences. (To this day Kotcheff maintains that no kangaroos were killed on his set and that the sequences are in fact documentary footage spliced together with staged scenes.) As disturbing as they are, the sequences of kangaroo slaughter are crucial to how Kotcheff depicts the sadism lurking behind even the most congenial personalities.
The key figure in all this is "Doc" Tyden (Donald Pleasence), who becomes Grant's spiritual guide through the Yabba. Tyden is a barbarian, but as the film gradually reveals, he and Grant have more in common than meets the eye. Once a doctor in Sydney, Tyden shares with Grant an air of urban sophistication; despite his bedraggled appearance and brusque behavior, he listens to opera and quotes Socrates. Whereas Grant was consigned to the outback against his will, Tyden abandoned the big city for what he considers a more primal life in the Yabba. (When Grant asks him how he came to call the town his home, Tyden pithily replies, "I'm an alcoholic.")
The two differ most importantly in the way they assimilate to the outback and its culture. Tyden epitomizes the impact the environment has on a newcomer, spending his days in a rundown shack, his beard scraggly and his skin darkened by the blistering sun. But Tyden manages to roll with punches, both literally and figuratively, while Grant, who's too polite to refuse any drink he's offered, heads down a path of self-destruction.
Wake in Fright is often compared to Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) and John Boorman's Deliverance (1972), and like the protagonists of those films, Grant resists assimilation but finds himself at the mercy of the landscape. Kotcheff once noted that the film's landscape, for all its vastness, "imprisons" the characters, and that's certainly the case for Grant. Theoretically he could leave at any time—no fences or barricades prevent him from simply walking away, but he's mentally trapped by the unending space and the swirling clouds of red dust.
Ultimately Wake in Fright becomes a kind of Conradian parable of a man succumbing to the wild. Given its raw, pointed depiction of human behavior, one can see why it was overlooked for so long. A fiery marathon of beer, sweat, and blood, it exposes how precarious our notions of civilization can be when the natural environment overtakes us. Push a man too far, Kotcheff suggests, and you'll find the beast concealed behind the mask of propriety.