Editors Note: We are pleased to welcome film expert Dan Gvozden to the pages of What Weekly. He is a teacher and scholar of film and writes, podcasts and stars in a local film review television show. His work is available through his site: Grind My Reels.
Over the past several weeks, subscribers to Netflix have received a wonderful treat from Tim League and the people of Drafthouse Films. Drafthouse Films, of the notorious Alamo Drafthouse fame, have been distributing some truly wonderful and offbeat films, starting with the wonderful Four Lions. Several weeks ago, many of these films were added to the already eclectic Netflix library.
There are really three new additions to take notice of: Quentin Dupieux’s Wrong, Kim Ki-duk’s Pietà, and most prominently Ted Kotcheff’s unforgettable Wake in Fright. Wake in Fright might not ring any bells or come immediately to mind as a piece of classic cinema, but it is the film that garnered this review from Martin Scorsese:
“Wake in Fright is a deeply — and I mean deeply — unsettling and disturbing movie. I saw it when it premiered at Cannes in 1971, and it left me speechless. “
There are even reports of him shouting gleefully during the screening as image after image filled the French theater. Wake in Fright isn’t exactly cheer-worthy more than it is deeply unsettling and brutal. So, to the idea that Scorsese would cheer on a film of this sort probably reflects more on him than the film itself.
What makes this Australian film such a find on Netflix is that the film was for a while largely considered to be lost to time. It was never available on VHS or DVD and the only surviving print was of such poor quality it was deemed improper to release commercially. That was until in 2004 a copy of the print was found in Pittsburgh in a container marked, “For Destruction.” For the next five years, with the assistance of Martin Scorsese (film-preservationist extraordinaire), the film was meticulously restored to create a new print and was subsequently screened at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival; 28 years after it originally premiered there.
Director Ted Kotcheff’s (First Blood) film follows the story of John Grant (Gary Bond), a disgruntled teacher of students in Tiboonda, a small town in the Australian Outback. The destitute town consists of no more than a handful of buildings, each one quite a great distance from each other. Kotcheff establishes the arid loneliness of the Outback in the opening shot of the film, as the camera spins 360 degrees around a vacant railroad stop. When John goes to a local bar, he’s the only one around and still receives terrible service. The bartender serves him a glass of beer that is mostly head and then pours a drink for himself with practically no head. That’s the kind of communal care to be found in Tiboonda.
However, John is no “teacher of the year” either and aches to escape the financial bond he entered into with the government. He needs to raise $1000 or he will have to continue to teach in Tiboonda, which he casually refers to as a “prison.” When Christmas break arrives, one would hardly notice by observing the weather, John plans on visiting his impossibly beautiful girlfriend in Sydney. However, he must stop-over in the nearby town of Bundanyabba, affectionately referred to as “The Yabba” by locals. It is there that the overly friendly and simultaneously barbaric and animalistic townsfolk besiege him upon.
The Yabba seems friendly at first, if not a little bit insistent, until John learns of the seedy underbelly that exists in plain sight. First off, every single interaction that John has is initiated by the people of Yabba demanding that he drink a beer, to the point that it becomes a physical impossibility for John and still his comrades continue to imbibe their own drinks. Later in the film, when a character suggests that he might suffer from alcoholism, it is almost laughable. Surely ever single character in this film is in the advanced stages of liver failure.
John is quickly swallowed alive by this culture after losing all of his money in a bet, one that operates like a high-stakes card game of “War.” and is encouraged to participate in some truly horrific acts that test his moral fiber. His pretty-boy nature and appearance is designed to set him apart from the often shirtless and toothless locals. He’s the city boy that has traveled straight to hell, whether metaphorical or literal, and still becomes complicit in the actions of the demons.
Of particular mention is a famous and controversial scene depicting a graphic kangaroo hunt. In an attempt to pass off the real-life horror of this scene, the film ends with the disclaimer:
“Producers’ Note. Photography of the hunting scenes in this film took place during an actual kangaroo hunt conducted by licensed professional hunters. No kangaroos were expressly killed for this motion picture. Because the survival of the Australian kangaroo is seriously threatened these scenes were included with approval of leading animal welfare organisations in Australia and the United Kingdom.”
What this means is unclear, but the crew reportedly tells stories of kangaroos hopping around the Outback, entrails hanging over the sandy desert floor. Clearly, animals were hurt in the making of this film. The images are difficult to take in and will turn off many viewers; 12 viewers stormed out of the film at its 2009 Cannes screening. It is not often that a film goes for the jugular in a way that Wake in Fright does, approval of animal welfare organizations or not.
There are few films that depict the Australian Outback or hell this vividly. What makes Wake in Fright so interesting is that even the elements that are intended to offer relief from this hell, in this case alcohol, only make the unending incarceration more unbearable. When confronted by the very person who just drove him out of the desert and demands that they share a drink, John Grant responds:
“What’s the matter with you people? Sponge on you, burn your house down, murder your wife, rape your child – that’s all right. But not have a drink with you? Don’t have a flaming bloody drink with you? That’s a criminal offence! That’s the end of the bloody world!”
“Wake in Fright” is available to stream instantly on Netflix.