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Wake In Fright

Ted Kotcheff

Wake In Fright
7
Say a little prayer of thanks to Bacchus that Australia's most famous lost film was found.

Adapted for the screen in 1971 by Canadian director, Ted Kotcheff (who would go on to helm movies as varied as First Blood and Weekend At Bernie's) from Kenneth Cook's novel of the same name, Wake In Fright (or Outback, as it was originally released) is a dizzying fever dream into the heart of darkness for John Grant (Gary Bond), a disgruntled school teacher stranded in the Australian Outback.

Freshly off for the Christmas holidays from his forced post in the desolate, miniscule township of Tiboonda, the bonded educator immediately hits the bar of the hotel he's been staying at before hopping a train bound for Sydney. So, it's obvious the man can drink but he's a far cry from possessing the yeast gills required for the situation he finds himself sucked into when an overnight stop in the peculiar mining town of Bundanyabba turns into a debasing dance with feral id impulses.

Initially, Grant is scornful of the simple-minded pleasures of the aggressively hospitable townsfolk – drinking, more drinking, a few drinks to wash down the drinks, then a spot of gambling, followed by drinks to celebrate or commiserate the outcome. But, galvanized after winning a significant amount of cash in a mindless game of chance, he bets his entire nut on a round of two-up (heads or tails with two coins) and loses.

Effectively destitute, the arrogant teacher finds himself stuck in "The Yabba," as the locals affectionately call it, dependant on the forceful kindness of strangers that so rankled him earlier. There's always another pint of beer at the ready and a welcoming couch or floor to pass out on, so long as he's ready to persist in the orgy of drunken shenanigans.

Lubricated by this carefree lifestyle, Grant is drawn further and further down to the level of base blue-collar behaviour he feels is so terribly beneath him. His descent culminates in wanton violence (the kangaroo sequence, filmed during an actual hunt, is tough to stomach) and sexual escapades that rub raw his moral fibre.

While it's impossible to justify showing the murder of animals on screen in a work of fiction, Kotcheff and crew insisted that the footage, which they never intended to get, be used to accurately depict the horrors facing the kangaroo population of Australia from the very type of careless jackasses the movie concerns. The result makes the film, which is already unsettling thanks to editing that effectively evokes the disorienting alienation of being blackout drunk around people whose entire approach to life makes your skin crawl, all the more unnerving.

By showing us how very close to the surface our animal nature slumbers, Wake In Fright is a harsh reminder that, in the absence of hope or ambition, the bestial is only ever a binge away. (Draft House)
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