starring Donald Pleasence, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Jack Thompson
screenplay by Evan Jones, based on the novel by Kenneth Cook
directed by Ted Kotcheff
by Angelo Muredda As exploitation-movie titles go, Wake in Fright suggests a high-concept reversal of A Nightmare on Elm Street, where the only way to fall prey to bogeymen is to stay awake. It's a bit of an odd sell, given the more abstract horror mined by Toronto-born filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, of both The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and First Blood fame. Far from Kravitz country in its Australian setting but still working in the same territory of young, ambling men who want to be somebody, Kotcheff's earlier film--first screened in 1971 to both wild acclaim and great distaste from animal-rights activists, and somewhat forgotten until its resurrection in the "Ozploitation" documentary Not Quite Hollywood--is more interested in the terror of duration without purpose, of waking up when you have no good reason, than in anything so prosaic as a slasher. Elm Street it isn't, then, but Kotcheff burrows into his haughty lead's descent into himself--a stand-in for every thirtysomething man's realization that his coming-of-age has already happened, to no discernible effect--with a nihilist precision that's tough to shake off.
The man in crisis is John (Gary Bond), a big-city drip who teaches, not by choice, in the outback town of Tiboonda, unveiled in an alienating opening crane shot that pans around the dusty schoolhouse to reveal a full circle of nothingness. The 360° survey at once is and isn't a joke. To be sure, it's an overdetermined and flatly symbolic introduction to the frustrated progress of the outbackers we'll come to meet, from the student who casually mentions that he'll see John next year, likely in the same class, to John's erudite double Tydon (Donald Pleasence), a disgraced Sydney doctor come to practice in a mining town known by the locals as The Yabba, where his alcoholism is indistinguishable from everyone else's. Wake in Fright is also an earnest study of how accidents of geography make people into the kinds of failures they are--the first town's endless blue skies and dirty tracks planting an innate skepticism of outsiders in the minds of locals before they can even begin to conceive of an outside.
Tydon's resignation to the deadening rhythms of The Yabba-- "Could be worse," he muses, "this beer could run out"--makes him an obvious foil for the cosmopolitan John. Although their exchanges are boilerplate male angst on some level, there's a sublime pulpiness to their embodiment of different sides of defeat that recalls the meaty philosophical shoptalk of a good Jack London novel. Working in a heightened register much of the time despite the blank formalism of the opening, Kotcheff deftly complements this plotting-by-allegory with his visual schema, returning to the image of a nozzle endlessly refilling empty pint glasses in sharp parody of the town's dead-end opulence.
The overflowing cup becomes a totem for John, especially in the film's visceral centrepiece, a daytime bender that culminates in an endless, nearly unwatchable kangaroo hunt. Much has been made of the grotesqueness of this footage, which shows the actual maiming and taunting of animals, but the less confrontational prelude is just as striking. Plowing through the shoddy roads of the outback in a beat-up car and firing aimlessly at everything that moves in the late-afternoon sun, the men turn into demonic revellers with rifles and shotguns--spiritual godfathers to the shanty-town flatteners from Bad Boys 2 rather than something so dignified as hunters. There's no doubting that the critique is on-the-nose here: Purposelessness breeds disrespect, and men with nothing to aim at in their own lives can't help but aim elsewhere with life-denying contempt. Yet the message is of a piece with the abrasive but consistently smart filmmaking, which plants its ideas early and grows them with uncommon care.
Wake in Fright opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.