Overview: A schoolteacher loses his money and finds himself marooned in a small city in the Australian Outback. Drafthouse Films; 1971; Rated R; 114 minutes.
Aussie Classic: Wake in Fright is an incredible piece of Australian cinema. A pinnacle of the Ozploitation genre (a name which Quentin Tarantino claims to have coined, though Aussies disagree), the movie is a dirty, surreal character piece about how a small city in the middle of nowhere degrades and corrupts an English schoolteacher. Wake in Fright offers the story of John Grant, a teacher who has paid his thousand dollar bond to the education services so must take whatever stationing they give him. His school is in Tiboonda, seemingly one of two buildings in the town, the other being the hotel and bar in which he lives. As Christmas approaches Grant heads to Sydney to see his girlfriend but first has a stopover for one night in Bundanyabba (the ‘Yabba) where he has a load of beers and ends up gambling away all his money on a game of two up. Trapped in the town he begins to find himself relying on the kindness of the people of ‘Yabba– kindness that usually involves heavy drinking, fights, and killing kangaroos.
Kill Them with Kindness: While bad things happen in Wake in Fright, the motives of the Aussies are not really malevolent. No one does anything bad without drink being the influence. Even the infamous kangaroo hunt is depicted as a whole lot of drunken fun until it becomes overwhelming, and it mirrors the real life filming of these scenes in which the real hunters hired for the movie became more inebriated as the day wore on meaning they began to miss their shots and leave animals dying in pain. Aggressive hospitality is John Grant’s downfall. He only has a dollar to his name but no one will let him spend it. The logic runs that he’s broke and a good bloke, so he should have a beer bought for him. Grant does, on a few occasions, try and turn down the offered beer and that is when he is met with the most hostility. Drinking is a way of life in the ‘Yabba, so what kind of man won’t share a beer with someone who’s offering to buy?
As viewers, we’re trained to look for villains and heroes and this movie gives none. No one sets out to orchestrate Grant’s descent into degradation. No one tricks him into gambling his money away, no one forces him to go to Tim Hynes’ house or stay with Doc, and no one holds him at gunpoint and insists he join the kangaroo hunt. Things happen and he goes along with them and each thing dirties him up a little bit more. The people from the ‘Yabba live a different lifestyle but I think the filmmakers do well not to paint them out as being akin to the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or other cinema hillbillies. They are just normal folk who like to have a few beers and fuck around maybe a bit too much, and its a lifestyle that’s a bit rich for John Grant. Especially when you add in the X factor of Doc.
Donald Pleasence: Donald Pleasence’s Doc Tydon is an amazing character. An alcoholic who can’t practice in Sydney but is welcomed with open arms in the ‘Yabba, he helps people out for free and lives a tramp-like lifestyle in a cabin with a fridge full of beer and desert on all sides. Grants seems to bond with him at first, seeing them both as intelligent men trapped and surrounded by backwards fools. But Doc does not see it this way. He is living a cash free life in the country. He helps people out and his friends supply him with food and beer. Grant’s plot is centered around money and how a lack of it traps him. It traps him in the ‘Yabba and his inability to pay off his education bond traps him in Tiboonda. Doc’s lack of money is freeing. His only drive is for more alcohol and food to live, and because he’s a good bloke and because he helps out then his friends are happy to supply him with both. Pleasence plays the character like he’s some sort of God of Beer. Shirtless and well-enunciated, he is like Hamlet survived Elsinore and got on the piss. He is hedonism without consequence, doing what he likes as he likes, in contrast to the buttoned up Grant. It is Doc’s later actions that serve as Grant’s final straw before the ‘Yabba seems to overwhelm him, and it’s fitting that Grant first meets Doc moments before he starts gambling his money away.
Overall: A horror film or cautionary tale, Wake in Fright is a fantastic piece of cinema. Director Ted Kotcheff (First Blood, Weekend at Bernies) captures the feeling of oppressive heat and unrelenting brightness that comes during an Aussie summer (just in time for Christmas). It is a loud movie too. The first time Grant goes into the ‘Yabba bar, the sheer volume of voices and people is uncomfortable and claustrophobic, and there after, we seee several oppressive sequences with quick cuts and loud, overbearing soundscapes. This is a fascinating movie that doesn’t follow standard beats and keeps your sympathies moving from feeling sorry for Grant to wanting to give him a good kick up the arse. It will also either make you want to go out and have too many beers or never drink again. This movie resonated very strongly with me as an Englishman living in Australia with in-laws who are farmers and butchers. Many times I’ve found myself – effete, Pom weakling that I am – chasing down sheep, trying to fight rams, digging my hands into tubs of raw meat, and helping to immunise lambs while they get their tails cut off; a million miles away from my life in England which was spent mostly watching telly and avoiding the rain. Of course my family is nothing like Wake in Fright, and yet my experiences definitely shaped my view of this movie. Many seem content with labelling the ‘Yabba citizens as the baddies in this movie, but I don’t see it that way. Rather, I’d argue Grant’s undoing is simply too much hospitality from the townsfolk, and too much of something else from fellow Englishman Doc.
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