I’m a firm believer that every man, no matter how educated, cultured or reformed he may look on the outside has, at his core, a skuzzy, debaucherous caveman waiting to get out. Even a guy in a fancy three-piece suit with a beautiful wife and perfect children will secretly long to go into the strip club by the airport on a 3-hour layover or to the Hooters he passes on the highway. He’d love to eat bacon for three meals a day or pee outside rather than in a toilet. He may be the number one recycler and “Clean Green” liberal in his neighborhood, but if offered the chance to light off illegal fireworks or even shoot a gun, he’s going to secretly drool… just a little bit. Now, men may not actually partake of the activities I’ve mentioned above, some have self-control. But if left alone or if they’re out of town and “no one would know,” I think most men easily and willingly devolve. At our core, we dudes all kinda, sorta want to be a lazy, base caveman.
I bring all this up having just seen “Wake in Fright,” a 1971 “lost classic” from Australia that’s being re-released by Drafthouse Films, a new start-up distribution label from the folks at the Alamo Drafthouse (which is hands down the greatest movie theater on Earth). I knew nothing of the film going into it, and with the twisted mentality of the Drafthouse crew and a title like “Wake in Fright,” I was expecting some kind of insane Australian outback slaughter-fest. Instead what I got was a thrilling look at one man’s descent into becoming a drunken, brawling, homeless piece of s**t. All in one week! But that description doesn’t do justice to a very, very good film that examines male ego in a way that’s almost more Sam Peckinpah than Sam Peckinpah himself.
John Grant (Boyd) is a disenfranchised schoolteacher forced to pay back his government education loans by teaching kids in a filthy Australian outback town. It’s hot and dirty and it feels like the only sound breaking the stifling silence is the incessant buzzing of flies. Grant is living and working in a sheer hell but, alas, summer break has arrived and Grant can go re-culture himself over the Christmas holiday (Christmas is in summer in Australia! Neat!) in Sidney and get immersed in fine dining and lovely women. But first, he must take a train through the rugged outback in order to fly out of his personal hell on Earth.
En route Grant stops in Bundanyabba, or as the locals call it, “The Yabba,” where he must stay the night in order to catch a flight in the morning. After checking into his creepy hotel, Grant heads to the local pub, where beer is swallowed like water (literally) and in-between raving about their quaint yet randy little town, the locals gamble in a high-stakes game of coin tossing. This is where “Wake in Fright” gets great as we see the hoity-toity Grant slowly succumb to the male energy around him. Gambling, booze, loose women and brawling are at first looked down upon by the snooty Grant but, after a while, the allure takes hold. What starts off as a much needed blowing off of steam slowly devolves into something very different and wholly intriguing.
Grant strikes up an odd friendship with “Doc” Tydon (Pleasance), a local doctor who freely admits to his uncontrollable thirst for alcohol and loose women and, before we know it, he and Grant are best buddies who are painting the town red. They meet other drunks and brawlers, they pillage, they hunt kangaroos and they sleep the day away only to awaken in the blazing sun to a hangover so strong, I could feel it through the screen. As the fun and shenanigans ramble on it becomes pretty clear that the refined and educated Mr. Grant is rapidly sliding down a slippery slope that is going to have an unpleasant finish at the end.
As I said, “Wake in Fright” feels like a Peckinpah movie but examining the dates of Peckinpah’s best output and “Wake in Fright,” the only real crossover in terms of time frame is “The Wild Bunch.” This surprised me as I felt the film was deliberately tying into the Peckinpah way of thinking. While I felt “Wake in Fright” was much more akin tonally and psychologically to “Straw Dogs” (which also came out in 1971) or “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” the similarities across the board and oeuvre are pretty obvious. While many may dismiss Peckinpah due to his misogyny and overly dramatic use of violence and gore, there’s a very clear line of what it means to be a man and challenges to masculinity running through his films.
While “Wake in Fright” is more of a standalone film of sorts, as Canadian director Ted Kotcheff was a hired gun and came from directing television, I still think the ideas expressed are along the lines of ego and masculine conflict. Then again, Kotcheff later directed “North Dallas Forty,” Rambo: First Blood” and “Uncommon Valor,” so maybe he’s a director who deserves another look in terms of his psychological leanings. He also directed “Weekend at Bernie’s” so, maybe not.
In any case, “Wake in Fright” is a terrific film. I won’t bring up “Bloody Sam” again but would also include John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” and various writings by Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson as touchstones for this film. For as scary and weird as the film gets, I still found it highly entertaining while also working on a subconscious level. The ending is a tad far-fetched and some of the conclusions are a bit strained but, overall, “Wake in Fright” is a solid film. Now, before I get all show-offy about books and thinking and stuff, I better head to the bar and get some cheap light beer and an order of bacon-covered buffalo wings. Cheers.