Friday, May 3, 2013

Wake in Fright

In Wake in Fright’s delinquent version of Australia, everyone’s skin is crispy-cured with sweat and heat and the incessant buzz of flies suggests the land isn’t populated by human beings so much as walking slabs of slowly rotting meat. In other words, Ted Kotcheff’s hellish walkabout is pure Oz-ploitation. Schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) gambles his savings away at a high-stakes underground coin-toss—yes, that’s a thing—and finds himself stranded in yobbo paradise. The only crime in this wild frontier town is refusing a pint, and the populace consists primarily of thick-necked thugs guzzling beer by the bucket-full (water’s for washing, you see). Trapped by the town’s sick gravity, John transforms from aloof man of learning to shambling drunk with a two-day beard and torn clothes. His nearest companion is Dr. Thyne—Donald Pleasence, crumpled like a tissue thrown away—who provides an even darker picture of what happens to an educated man gone to seed. Dignified and debauched, Thyne lives off the largesse of the town, granted an endless supply of beer out of respect for his medical abilities. In the land of high-functioning alcoholics, the local rummy is king, apparently.

The pretensions of civilization are washed away by a tidal wave of stout lager, and it’s all as overblown as it sounds. But Kotcheff and his performers are ferociously committed to this perverse vision; the loss of self-control in the characters is mirrored by the film’s increasingly unhinged development. Most shockingly, a gruesome kangaroo hunt spirals into pure bloodlust: animals were most definitely harmed during the making of this film. Afterwards, in a self-disgusted haze, the film offers us its most representative scene: John passed out, two Aussies brawling in the dirt, and Thyne inexplicably howling, “What about Socrates?” (Yes, what about Socrates?) Yet for all the commentary on masculinity run amuck, the film seems more interested in its pitiless depiction of addiction. John awakens each morning in an ever-widening pool of sweat, blood, vomit and other assorted fluids, as if this constricting world was steadily pounding him into pulp. Shackled to his teaching job by a thousand-dollar bond, he’s a slave of civilization seeking escape; set free for a brief time, he turns into a prisoner of his own impulses. The tidy ending of the film masks the impossible choice between these warring forms of servitude. As the camera pans across the empty expanse that surrounds his schoolhouse, the vastness seems as claustrophobic as a concrete cell.

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