FF2012: 'Wake in Fright'


FF2012: 'Wake in Fright'

This long lost Aussie nightday-mare dates back to 1971, the same year Nicolas Roeg's seminal Walkabout arrived in theaters. Director Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright is the more compelling of the two, and this restored version might well be the most intense 116 minutes of Fantastic Fest 2012.

Roeg's film -- and career -- have sailed on to auteur-level acclaim. Not so much with Kotcheff, who has nonetheless carved out a successful career in Hollywood helming the likes of John Rambo origin story First Blood and '70s semi-classics The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Fun with Dick and Jane.

Really, it's unfair to compare the two (Kotcheff is Canadian, actually), but their divergence at the art house speaks volumes about where we were as cinephiles at dead end of the sixties, and, too, where we are now.

Wake in Fright is an unflinching portrayal of modern man's moral disintegration in the face of the collective mob and his ensuing culpability in the ever-widening ripples of despair that dissolution engenders. Or, to put if more succinctly, small towns breed small minds, and suave, intellectual urbanity is no match for the primordial urge to drink, fight, and fuck shit up beyond all hope of repair. If that's not a truism echoed and magnified every single moment of today's 24-hour news cycle, I don't know what is.

Gary Bond is riveting as John Grant, a blandly handsome schoolteacher who runs into Deliverance-styled trouble in the boozy hellhole of Bundanyabba (known as "the Yabba" to the locals). He's on holiday and heading to meet up with his girlfriend for a Sidney surf-side frolic when he stops off at The Yabba. Talk about your wrong turns.

Grant is welcomed, warily at first and then with increasingly uncomfortable enthusiasm, by this outbackwater's bleary band of all male sociopaths. (The few female characters on display here are a cowed, miserable lot.) By degrees, amidst the oven-harsh heat and cinematically epic surroundings of miles upon miles of sun-baked nothingness, these boisterous sociopaths divest poor Grant of his money, his mind, and, eventually, his very humanity.

The notion that civilization is, in reality, a house of cards built upon a swervy foundation of shit isn't exactly new, but Bond is so pathetically out of his depth here that it's impossible not to cringe with every new flensing of his self-supposed superiority over The Yabba's wicked, wicked lot. (Among them a rollicking, freakish Donald Pleasance as the town sawbones.)

Kotcheff, working from a novel adapted by Modesty Blaise screenwriter Evan Jones, ratchets up the sick humor and ghastly ribaldry to nail-biting heights. It all culminates in a kangaroo snuff movie sequence that'd probably make PETA spokesperson Morrissey hang the projectionist, never mind the DJ. Definitely not for the squeamish, Wake in Fright is calibrated for maximum psychic impact. It's madness is viral and disconcerting. Truly, you're going to want a stiff drink and a hot shower, or a noose, after visiting the Yabba.

Fantastic Fest presents Wake in Fright, D: Ted Kotcheff, 116 mins., Wednesday, Sept 26, 11:40am

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