Wake in Fright | Movie review
Ted Kotcheff’s restored Australian classic gets a run at the Siskel.
Few filmmakers’ résumés are more diverse than that of Canadian director Ted Kotcheff, whose best-known works run the gamut from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz to First Blood to Weekend at Bernie’s. If you’re seeking evidence of his mastery, look no further than Wake in Fright, the bugfuck 1971 film he made in Australia—long considered lost but restored in 2009, and now finally making the rounds to the Siskel. A self-described “bondage slave of the education department,” pretentious British schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) has been located to the outback against his will. He plans to see his girlfriend in Sydney during Christmas break, but to fly out of the sticks, he must stop over in Bundanyabba, a shithole nowhereseville boiling over in the summer heat. An act of reckless gambling strands him there, and while residents aren’t keen on helping him leave, they’re all too happy to have him as their guest. Soon he’ll see why they think “the Yabba” is the best place in Australia.
In a town composed overwhelmingly of men, a wealthy man’s daughter (Sylvia Kay) makes the first move. Drinking is the default activity; you may marvel at how characters remain conscious. A hungover Grant asks an alcoholic, hobo-like ex-physician (Donald Pleasence) for water. “Yabba water’s only for washing,” he explains. Like a Deliverance in which the hillbillies kill their interloper with kindness, Wake in Fright charts its protagonist’s descent into primitivism. Radical for its time, the psychologizing today might seem pat. Even so, the road to hell is sensationally suspenseful, with the sort of surreal non sequiturs movies could get away with in the ’70s. You won’t see a better man-on-kangaroo brawl this year.