Based on the book of the same name, a school teacher named John Grant (Gary Bond (Zulu)) goes to take a holiday in Sydney but one of the stops along the way is Bundanyabba, a small town in the middle of nowhere Australia. He only plans to stay one night and catch a flight to Sydney the next morning but he loses all of his money gambling on a game of heads or tails. That’s right, two coins are flipped and you bet on how they’re gonna land. So not only does John lose his cash but he loses his mind as well and slips into an alcoholic abyss. Crazy shit ensues.
I had never heard of this movie until about a month ago. I was watching the much maligned Weekend at Bernie’s (which, sure isn’t great and kind of annoying but I fully appreciate that they took this couple-of-guys-hanging-out-with-a-corpse concept to pretty extreme lengths) and I wanted to see what else the director, Ted Kotcheff, had done. To my total surprise I saw that he directed First Blood. When that disbelief wore off I checked out the rest of his shit. Wake in Fright had a cool sounding plot so I thought I’d give the Bernie’s director a look but didn’t expect a whole lot.
Well, uhh, guys…holy shit did I fall in love with this movie. One of the most interesting (or maybe the most interesting) aspects of Wake in Fright is how the townspeople of Bundanyabba kill you with kindness. Every single person that John comes across is the friendliest motherfucker in history. When John arrives in town he goes to a bar and gets chatted up by a cop who at first you might think wants to run him out. That’s the typical way these encounters go but not here. The cop instead asks John if he needs another drink even though John’s glass is almost full. The cop stares at John until he gives in and chugs his beer. This happens a couple of more times and John finally loosens up while the two carry on some small talk. The cop then takes John to get something to eat and introduces him to the coin flip game going on in the back. It’s all perfectly hospitable. The cop just wants John to have a good time and show him around town a bit. There isn’t a malicious agenda anywhere in sight.
The next day when John is flat broke he befriends another guy at a bar who ends up buying John all of his drinks and then invites him back to his house for even more drinks. John didn’t seek this guy out. In fact John lashes out at him because he was pissed about having no money. The guy got pissed back and gave John a drink. And this keeps happening over and over. John eventually makes yet more friends including Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence (Escape From New York, Dracula (1979))) who puts him up in his shack and gives him food (kangaroo) and drink (more alcohol). At one point John even insists on buying a round of drinks for his new found friends but they will hear none of it and tell him that he can pay for a round when he actually has some money. I mean some random dude gets genuinely pissed when John refuses to have a drink with him.
The thing is John is fully aware of this unparalleled kindness and generosity which causes him to be conflicted about it. On one hand it allows him to live completely free of inhibition and he doesn’t have to worry about money or virtually all material things. But of course, this is a double edged sword and the problem with a truly care-free life is that John overindulges in booze and reckless behavior which damages his body and mind.
He tries to leave town a couple of times but can’t pull away. There’s a fantastic moment when it’s been a couple of days since John arrived in Bundanyabba and he runs into the cop that he met the first night. John looks like he’s been through the fucking wringer and the cop is shocked and worried. It makes you wonder if the cop was thinking this was his fault by starting John on a path of self-destruction. It’s brilliant how innocent the whole journey starts and then you get to see, through the cop’s concerned reaction, how much has changed. You’re brought back to reality for a second to put the events you went through with John into perspective. It’s beautiful and effective storytelling.
All of the characters are so well drawn and executed too. It’s strange because we never learn too much about anyone in particular, including John. But somehow I cared for every one of them. They’re all so full of life and endless energy that it’s infectious. Doc Tydon is especially great because he’s the most pathetic figure in the movie. He really was a doctor once but he’s an unabashed alcoholic that seems to revel in his situation and how he feels about himself to a certain extent. And Donald Pleasance is so fucking good as Doc. This is the best I’ve ever seen him.
Gary Bond in the lead is absolutely incredible. As good as everyone else is Bond pulls out all the stops to make you feel cheerful, disheartened, confused (in the best possible way), frightened, anxious, hopeful and a bunch of other emotions. John goes on such a wild ride that I would imagine this would be a pretty difficult character to play for most actors. I think part of the reason why this character works so well is because he’s relatable. We all have a little John Grant in us. We have that curiosity of what it would be like to go off in a direction and survive on pure instinct for a while. But shit, you know that won’t actually happen so here you get to live vicariously for a bit.
Moving on to the cinematography, it’s gorgeous. The movie has a tan/yellow-ish tint to it that perfectly fits with the Australian outback. I love the way this was shot with some kind of extraordinary camera work showing up every so often. The focus is the story and John so I really dig that they sprinkled in these interesting angles and crazy editing only to accent certain scenes. This is definitely a film you should try to watch in HD if you can.
Now what this picture is probably most famous for is the kangaroo hunting scene. John and his buddies go on a drunken kangaroo hunt in the middle of the night shooting them and collecting the carcasses. And the thing about it is that it’s pretty much all real. Kangaroos weren’t specifically killed for this movie though. The filmmakers tagged along on a kangaroo hunt and that’s the footage that was used. So yea, they’re really killing ‘roos here but it wasn’t something the filmmakers staged for the sole purpose of getting the shots. Regardless it’s ghastly to sit through and definitely the darkest part of the film. This scene shows how far John has sunk and that point gets driven home in an extremely brutal way. This makes the scene and the film as a whole more impactful. But could they have found another way to make that point? Or shoot this scene in a way that didn’t involve killing defenseless animals? Would an alternative solution have had the same effect? I dunno. The kangaroo hunting scene is unforgettable and, fuck me, I think it does help to make the movie as remarkable as it is. But it’s so fucking horrific. I wish they had found a workaround.
If you think you can put up with that particular scene then you have to check this out. The fall of this simple school teacher (interestingly this isn’t a rise and fall, just a fall) is so fascinating because he’s surrounded by these unbelievably kind yet totally destructive people. He gets caught up in their world and doesn’t know how to escape it. It’s like John stepped into The Twilight Zone. And the drinking, Jesus the drinking. Few movies have this much boozing. I don’t think I’ve seen this much excessive drinking since Spring Breakers. Ok, well that a recent picture but before that maybe Leaving Las Vegas?
This is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, plain and simple.