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Wake in Fright

Outback 1971 | 109 min | R | 1.85:1

Wake in Fright


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Theatrical release date

 14 December, 2012
 07 March, 2014

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Wake in Fright Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, December 13, 2012

In 1971, “Wake in Fright” (also known as “Outback”) made its celebrated debut at the Cannes Film Festival, but it was a difficult feature, finding trouble collecting an audience in its native Australia, soon slipping into obscurity without television and home video releases to keep it fresh in the minds of movie fans. Over time, it was believed to be lost. Decades later, a print was located, polished up, and returned to glory, resulting in the reissue of powerful, frequently horrifying picture from director Ted Kotcheff, perhaps finally receiving the audience it deserves. Brutal, but in a deceptively causal manner, “Wake in Fright” submits one the sharpest depictions of Outback life I’ve come into contact with, imagining the vast land as a sun-baked prison from which there is no escape.

A frustrated educator in a small Australian town, John (Gary Bond) is aiming to go on holiday, boarding a local train to take him away from the daily grind of his miserable life. Stopping in Bundanyabba, a mining town in the middle of the Outback, John slips off the train for a break, taking refuge in a nearby bar to drink with the locals. Befriending cop Jock (Chips Rafferty), John is introduced to a backroom gambling game where players bet on penny flips. At first dismissive of the pastime, the teacher is quickly sucked into the thrill of the toss, eventually winning and losing a fortune, leaving John shocked and panicked. Waking up the next morning without money to take him out of town, John is left to mingle with the community, eventually meeting up with a charitable fellow named Tim (Al Thomas), who introduces the ruined one to his brutish buddies, including Doc (Donald Pleasence). Pulled into a routine of excessive drinking and dangerous sport, John soon realizes he’s trapped in Bundanyabba, unable to pull himself together to leave a town where suicide is the most popular form of escape.

“Wake in Fright” is a slow-burn feature, crafted in a manner that reflects John’s experience in “The Yabba,” where the man unknowingly succumbs to the temptations of Outback pursuits as the locals encourage his curious behavior. Kotcheff sustains an even pace for the picture, observing John’s initial disdain for the rural folk, dismissive of their outrageous levels of beer consumption and interest in a simple game of chance. He’s an educated outsider trapped in a lousy job he no longer wants, with his new surroundings supplying a stronger reminder of his imagined superiority, looking down on those who’ve failed to escape the nothingness of the land. Led by a powerfully emotional performance from Bond (who’s bravely demonstrative with his highs and lows), “Wake in Fright” generates a sinister tone of seduction, or perhaps alcohol-soaked submission, following John’s breakdown as it’s shaped by the locals, who welcome the fatigued instructor into their mundane pursuits, almost surprised by the man’s eagerness.

The feature takes a few unexpected turns, while remaining tight on strange behaviors, including an unfortunate encounter between John and Tim’s willing daughter, Janette (Sylvia Kay), extending the teacher’s woes to total humiliation. “Wake in Fright” escalates the nightmare once John and Doc begin their association, with a mid-movie kangaroo hunt brutally reinforcing the lead character powerlessness as he transforms into the very type of man he once condemned. The hunt sequence is real and animal lovers should exercise caution with these moments, which are key to understanding John’s emotional and physical descent. Adding to the tension is Pleasence, who does a remarkable job portraying Doc’s manipulations and unspoken interest in John, which culminates in an unexpected moment of intimacy that paves the way for a feverish third act.

“Wake in Fright” is a demanding sit, though one that rewards the patient with an evocative sense of location (a sweltering, hostile town cloaked in Christmas decorations) and a striking study of a fractured headspace, resulting in a wildly claustrophobic viewing experience that settles on a cynical conclusion. It’s a miracle “Wake in Fright” exists at all, with this restoration and rerelease putting the forgotten film out into the world again for renewed, and quite deserved, appreciation.

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Jack Thompson, John Meillon, Chips Rafferty
Director: Ted Kotcheff

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