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  • Benjamin May

Wake In Fright (1971) Review

John Grant is a schoolteacher in a remote town deep in the Australian outback. It's the Christmas holidays, and he plans to go to Sydney to meet his girlfriend. However, the train only takes him as far as Bundanyabba- The Yabba to those who know it- where John promptly loses his money at a gambling hall. Stranded in The Yabba, John is introduced to some locals- the sinister yet charming Doc Tydon among them- and falls ever deeper into a drunken, violent haze from which he may never be able to escape.

Based on Kenneth Cook's novel of the same name, 'Wake In Fright' is a powerful psychological thriller that is frighteningly visceral and brutally realistic. Subtly directed by Ted Kotcheff, the film is a trip to the dark side of the human condition that pulls no punches. Kotcheff made some great films- 'The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz', 'Fun With Dick And Jane' among them- but this is arguably the most enduring and affecting work he ever did.

Evan Jones' adaptation of Cook's novel has resulted in a masterful screenplay that is unpredictable and terrifying. The story is riveting and realistic, never melodramatic and always entertaining. A seedy undercurrent and threat of violence runs throughout the film that will leave any viewer utterly spellbound. The brutality borne of the boredom the men in the film experience day in and day out is startlingly authentic and powerfully captured on film.

On the point of authenticity, viewers will no doubt be put off by the infamous and distressing kangaroo hunt sequence. While it is stomach-churning, it undeniably heightens both the reality and frightening nature of the film. Also- and this point is important- the hunt would have happened, had the cameras been rolling or not. Drunken idiots with weapons and too much time on their hands do savage and disgusting things; that is not up for debate: that's truth. Arguably, Kotcheff's inclusion of the sequence merely adds to the narrative power.

Brian West's naturalistic cinematography captures the outback like no other: the heat, the vast expanse, the sweat; the endlessness of it all. His camera work is fluid and artistic, his composition and framing undeniably beautiful. It is work reminiscent of the best of Bert Glennon or Freddie Young: epic photography that is truly unforgettable.

Anthony Buckley's editing is tight, his cuts adding additional subtlety and power to the film. John Scott's score is atmospheric and eerie, contributing to the sinister tone of the film, but never becoming over the top or melodramatic. The production design and set decoration is realistic and grubby, every location in the film looks genuine. The same can be said for Ron Williams' costume design- it looks like the costumes were stolen from locals' washing-lines in the night (before they were washed, one might add).

The intense realism of the picture extends to the actors' performances. Gary Bond- as Grant- is masterfully understated. The audience is totally on his side as he undergoes tortures of a psychological kind while stuck in The Yabba. Bond was often compared to Peter O'Toole throughout his career, but his is a far less theatrical presence on screen, and his performance in 'Wake In Fright' is fantastically natural.

Donald Pleasence was a terrific, powerful actor, but could occasionally lessen a film's impact with his overacting; particularly in villainous roles (see him hamming it up in 'Will Penny' for proof of this notion). However, as Doc Tydon, he is electric, magnetic and simply incredible. It is a performance of no vanity, a towering piece of acting both entertaining and petrifying to behold. That he wasn't nominated for an Academy Award for his work in the film is a testament to the fact that the Academy usually get it wrong; and always have.

In addition to Bond and Pleasence, Chips Rafferty does a scene stealing turn as the local hard-drinking policeman, Jock Crawford. Every time he's on screen your eyes are drawn to him immediately; and his performance is fantastically unaffected. Sylvia Kaye also does admirable work as a depressed sheila in whom Grant finds some kinship, and Jack Thompson makes his film debut as Dick; one of Tydon's alcoholic and violent cronies.

'Wake In Fright' is a psychological thriller full of emotional power and unpretentious depth. Featuring career-best performances from many in the cast, the film is a roller-coaster ride through a hellish outback populated by drunkards, brutes and the occasional kangaroo. There are many violent moments in the film, and some genuinely disturbing scenes that aren't for the faint of heart. It is always realistic though, and never histrionic. Most of all, it is a powerful critique of human nature, of the fallibility and violence inherent in man; especially when boredom and alcohol is involved. 'Wake In Fright' is- simply put- a masterpiece, a bloody, brutal masterpiece.


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