Near the end of Wake in Fright sensible schoolteacher John Grant refuses a beer.
“Ya mad, ya bastard!” responds the offended local. He couldn’t believe Grant, after getting a free ride, would turn down an offer for beer.
Until that point every beer that Grant was offered was drank. Whether he accepted it or rejected it, he put it down his pipes. Grant (Gary Bond), a teacher in the remote outback town of Tiboonda, finds himself stuck in a twisted, downward spiral in Bundanyabba – the Yabba to the locals – after only intending to spend one night in the wretched town while on his way to Sydney.
I’ve seen Wake in Fright before. The film initially stunned me with its quick descent into madness – a quality that even after multiple viewings still remains a shocking turn of events.
Bet after bet and beer after beer, Grant finds himself out of money, out of luck and out of a place to stay. Taking residence with a few locals, one being Doc Tydon (which turns out to be one of Donald Pleasence’s greatest performances), Grant is seen drinking himself into unconsciousness and is faced with challenging his own morals as both a man and as a teacher.
It would be easy to dismiss Wake in Fright as dismal exploitation. It’s a raw, gritty, sometimes funny and dark episode. But located at the heart of the film is a man’s fight against his own beliefs and morals. He’s trying to make it to Sydney to see his girlfriend. He was only supposed to be in the Yabba for a day. Grant decided to gamble it all away – trying to earn enough money to dismiss himself from his isolated and depressing job in Tiboonda – but instead he lost it all.
The film, directed by Ted Kotcheff and written by Evan Jones (based on the novel by Kenneth Cook), has us watch this very lost and tortured man make decisions – like killing a baby kangaroo with his own bare hands – that certainly compete with his morals, ethics and sensibilities. The statement the film makes about alcoholism and the damage all this drinking can do to your life is enough to jar a nerve lose in your body.
Aesthetically Wake in Fright is bizarre, vivid with disparaging color and in-your-face. It turns the town of Broken Hill into a dread-inducing hell that makes you feel as stranded as the main character. You feel like Grant can’t escape the intensely hospitable locals and their offers to buy you a beer, make you some food or take you hunting. Grant, trying to distance himself at almost every moment, instead finds himself spiraling into an alcohol-fueled binge that distracts him from his problems of not having any money or a place to stay. It reduces him from a sensible man who teaches children into a drunken Yabba man – a clear distinction presented by the film’s narrative. This isn’t your “everyman” city. It’s the most isolated city. You can’t help but be captured by it’s soul-sucking personality. As Doc Tydon says about the Yabba: “It could be worse. Supply of beer could run out.”
Wake in Fright is without a doubt a one of a kind film. It creates discussion and controversy. It reigns as a champion of Australian cinema and leaves an impression that weighs on you much more than just some shocking exploitation romp. What a dizzying and bizarre trip into a simple man’s soul.