“Have a drink, mate? Have a fight, mate? Have a taste of dust and sweat, mate? Thre’s nothing else out here.” You’re going to think I’m exaggerating but after watching Wake in Fright last night I was so mentally exhausted I found myself wandering aimlessly around the house for awhile at 3 AM until my mind settled down to a more tranquil state. For some reason I also craved an ice-cold beer ... Just one. Call it sensory overload or whatever you wish but I was absolutely overwhelmed by this totally original film—a dark, dark comedy with existential overtones, if you will—which involves a bonded teacher “John Grant” (Gary Bond) stuck at a remote school in the sweltering Australian outback who stops in the rough mining town of Bundanyabba (“The Yabba”) on his way to Sydney for the Christmas holidays. After getting totally shitfaced and losing all of his money gambling, Grant embarks on a nightmarish odyssey through a desolate wasteland of total depravity (including a barbaric, controversial kangaroo hunt that will make even the most jaded viewer wince!). In fact, the prodigious amount of booze drunk in Wake in Fright makes Barfly look like Picnic at Hanging Rock in comparison. In addition, Donald Pleasence turns in one of his best performances as “Doc Tydon,” a creepy alcoholic madman, as well as the great Australian actor Chips Rafferty in his final film role as booze-soaked policeman “Jock Crawford.” Directed by a Canadian, Ted Kotcheff (First Blood), Wake in Fright was based on a 1961 novel by Kenneth Cook. An early backer of the film, Martin Scorsese has remarked, “Wake in Fright is a deeply—and I mean deeply—unsettling and disturbing movie … Visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically, it’s beautifully calibrated and it gets under your skin one encounter at a time …” If you want a challenging, uncompromising experience, watch it. Oh yeah, I love that final scene: “Did you have a good holiday?” … “The best.”
Useless Trivia: Wake in Fright premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1971. After the original negatives turned up in 2004 (at a Pittsburgh storage facility of all places!), the film was painstakingly digitally restored and screened at Cannes again in 2009.