Ted Kotcheff’s “Wake In Fright” is an unsettling, if perverse, psychological thriller unlike any other film ever made. It captures the complete mental breakdown of a character in surreal yet viscerally physical terms, while encompassing economic conditions, prejudices, and the ruthless mindset of men in Australia's lawless Outback environment.
You might detect a tinge of anti-alcohol propaganda at the core of the narrative’s existential crisis in this unpredictable adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel. Nicholas Roeg’s Cinema is the closest thing you compare to Kotcheff’s fraught social study of Australia in the late ‘50s. Desolation of the human soul comes complete with senseless killing of kangaroos.
Gary Bond’s John Grant character is a grade school teacher chomping at the bit to escape his Government-delegated job in the remote town of Tiboonda. School is out for Christmas. A reunion with his girlfriend in Sydney promises a return to civilization.
The problem is that our unreliable protagonist gets sidetracked during a night of drinking and gambling in a mining town populated with reprobates. Grant imagines winning enough money gambling to pay off the education bond that has him teaching in the middle of nowhere. No such luck. Grant’s poor choice leads him on a bitter path toward many more decisions he soon comes to regret.
John Grant becomes a refugee in his own country, surrounded by alcohol-fueled maniacs who usher him down a spiral of destruction. “Wake In Fright” is a masterpiece of energized social satire. The team of kangaroo hunters who take Grant along for the ride represent the same patriarchy that carry on constant wars and shove guns in civilians’ faces just to see how they handle fear. “Wake In Fright” can be taken as a command or a condition. Either way, this classic picture will make you squirm in fear.
Ted Kotcheff led a varied career that spanned four decades and many genres and styles. "Fun With Dick and Jane" (1977), "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe" (1978), "North Dallas Forty" (1979), and "Weekend at Bernies" (1989) were each box office hits. Although "Wake In Fright" died at the box office, it is a truly staggering film that represents an artistic pinnacle for Ted Kotcheff. You can see why it's his favorite of all of his films; this one is special.
Rated R. 108 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)
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