Because it’s being distributed by Drafthouse Films, a sister company to Badass Digest, I can’t really review Wake in Fright. There are ethical issues that would torpedo my credibility in a moment. But here’s the rub: I really want to write about Wake in Fright. It’s just one of those movies that gets my juices going. So here are some thoughts on the film, but not in the form of a review. This isn’t a review! It’s just thoughts about the movie!
Wake in Fright was originally released in 1971; the film didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, and while it played at Cannes and was named one of the year’s ten best by Rex Reed, it sort of fell off the radar. And then it fell off the planet; as happens with movies the prints began disappearing. Decay, neglect and willful destruction (you wouldn’t believe the stories of prints of classic movies just getting dumped in the ocean because the current owners don’t know what the fuck to do with them) took their toll, and at some point there were no more prints of the movie. The film was never released to home video in America. For all intents and purposes, Wake in Fright had been lost.
Original editor Anthony Buckley decided he wanted to rescue the movie. He spent years tracking down rumors of prints, ending up in Dublin with a print that was far too rough to ever make a decent transfer. He didn’t give up, though, and ten years later he found not just a good print but all the stems and negatives in a dumpster in Pittsburgh. “To Be Destroyed” was written on the dumpster; a week later and Buckley would have found nothing.
The film was restored and played again at Cannes in 2009 - one of only two films to play the fest twice (L’Avventura being the other). Now, 42 years after its original release, Wake in Fright is getting another shot at American audiences.
I hope it goes over better this time. The film, directed by Ted Kotcheff - whose filmography is diverse enough to include First Blood and Weekend At Bernies - is an utterly bizarre creature, a movie that defies every expectation even as you watch it. Gary Bond, looking not unlike young Peter O’Toole, is John Grant, a schoolteacher whose contract has him stuck in the deep Outback of Australia. Heading to Sydney for Christmas, he makes a stopover at a small city where he loses all of his money and then, slowly, his mind.
Wake in Fright isn’t a hicksploitation movie. The Outback types that Grant meets are broad, loud and a little bit crazy, but they aren’t mean. Or bad. Or cruel. They’re worse: they’re hospitable to the point of death. After Grant loses all his money in a truly idiotic gambling den (they bet on whether coins come up heads or tails), the locals embrace him, take care of him, and start him on an epic week-long drinking binge. There’s not a hint of malice as they pour can after can after can of beer down his throat. They just want to hang out.
As the week goes on Grant loses his identity and his marbles. He is a sodden mess, wrestling kangaroos and finding himself in the oddly tender care of the town doctor, played by Donald Pleasance. It’s one of the greatest roles of Pleasance’s career, a part that has pathos and menace in exquisitely equal parts. Pleasance is funny and carries an intensity that few other directors truly got out of him. I’m not talking about that creepy intensity he tossed off so handily in a hundred horror movies, but the intensity of a man who has been kicked out of society and is making his own way in a wild world. His character - an alcoholic doctor whose version of self control is to only drink beer - is tough and cultured, an opera buff who smashes windows on the weekends. The culmination of his relationship with Grant is subtly presented, but all the more shattering for it.
Wake in Fright is a nightmare movie, but what makes it great is that the nightmare is internal. Every problem in the film comes from Grant; the Outback weirdos are simply enablers. Anyone who has gone out in a strange town and overdone it will recognize what’s going on here, that sense of self slipping away - joyously at first, and then terrifyingly later. Grant’s dissolution is an existential breakdown of the highest order.
Kotcheff captures the brutal beauty of the Outback and the weathered specificity of its people. The film’s themes are eternal - the battle within ourselves to maintain our civilized, respectable veneer - but the setting and characters are time capsule material. Watching Wake in Fright is like being transported back to an Australia that probably died the day Crocodile Dundee was released. It’s a movie that looks stupendous on the big screen, where the wide open emptiness of the Outback can be truly experienced.
There’s something else about Wake in Fright: it’s hilarious. Everyone who writes about the movie defaults to the heavy, nightmarish qualities - and they’re all there! - but usually at the expense of mentioning how funny the film is. The movie’s observational humor of the denizens of the Outback is sly and dry, and while Grant’s deconstruction is harrowing, it’s also very funny. Kotcheff understands the pitiful nature of the drunk is always paired with an almost slapstick comedy. Tonally, Wake in Fright embraces both.
Like I said, this isn’t a review. But if I’ve piqued your interest, know that the movie opens in New York City this weekend, and then will be coming to other cities across the country before being released on home video. Click here to get the rundown of the entire release.