Judge Patrick Bromley wakes in a cold sweat.
Have a drink, mate? Have a fight, mate? Have some dust and sweat, mate? There's nothing else out here.
A 1971 Australian film, long thought lost, makes its way to Blu-ray courtesy of Drafthouse Films, a studio making a name for itself by discovering (or rediscovering) oddball gems like this one.
Facts of the Case
John Grant (Gary Bond, Zulu) is a schoolteacher indebted to the Australian government via a bond for $1,000. As part of the terms of his bond, he's forced to relocate to the remote village of Tiboonda, but first must travel to a town in the outback called Bundanyabba (affectionately—or is it?—referred to as "The Yabba") to receive his training. Stuck in The Yabba with nothing to do, Grant embarks on a bizarre odyssey of drinking, gambling, fighting, drinking, hunting and drinking, and along the way encounters several colorful characters like Jock (Chips Rafferty, The Desert Rats), an affable policeman who serves as Grant's guide through The Yabba, and a mysterious stranger called Doc (Donald Pleasance, Halloween), who seems to show up where Grant goes. And, of course, there is a woman. There always is.
Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright is a nightmare movie, unraveling with a slowly mounting dread and the hellish feeling that we are powerless to escape what is happening to protagonist John Grant. On one level, it unfolds with nightmare logic: A leads to B leads to C leads to a drunken night spent wantonly murdering scores of animals. On another level, Kotcheff plays games with the narrative and the visual scheme so that we can't always trust what we are seeing. Both feel like nightmares. If just depends on what kind of nightmares you have.
Grant, however, is not powerless to escape the events of the movie. That is part of Wake in Fright's special genius—that everything that happens to Grant happens because he chooses it. In some instances, he makes a choice that leads him even further into a nightmare because that's what he wants to do. He is not exactly who he thought he was, and that process of discovery is at the heart of the film. The dark, dark heart. The heart of darkness, if you will. A line could be drawn between Wake in Fright and Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, released the same year, as both films tackle man's propensity for violence and how thin the line is between civility and savagery. With just the slightest provocation, that line can be crossed.
Based on a 1960 novel by Kenneth Cook, Wake in Fright has built up a reputation over the last 40 years, perhaps fueled by the fact that it was so damn hard to see for so long. After a good reception at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival and strong critical notices, the film was a box office disappointment (possibly due to mis-marketing, but it's difficult to imagine circumstances in which this movie is a commercial success) and then disappeared for about four decades. It wasn't released on VHS. It wasn't released on DVD. It wasn't really even broadcast on TV, and became one of those movie legends—a story passed down by those who fortunate enough to have seen it. And while few movies could stand up to that kind of hype and anticipation, Wake in Fright is as good as its legend. The performances all feel authentic and bigger than life. Kotcheff, who is not Australian (he's Canadian), brings with him an outsider's fear of the outback, perfect for reflecting Grant's status as an "other." The filmmaker would go on to direct both First Blood and Weekend at Bernie's, so his filmography is a little uneven. Wake in Fright might just be his peak.
Drafthouse Film's Blu-ray release of Wake in Fright features a lot of material ported over from the 2009 Australian release, which was the first time the movie was commercially available since its release in 1971. The 1080p transfer looks as good as it can, with lots of sweaty, stubbly detail and a strong reproduction of the movie's flaming orange and hazy-brown color palette. The image is a little soft and looks its age at times (though there are no real signs of print damage, which must have been cleaned up during the restoration a few years back), but all of its supposed "flaws"—this is a movie that looks like its been dragged through the Australian desert on a scorching hot summer day—are completely intentional on the part of the filmmakers. The stereo audio track totally works even though it feels a little thin, because such was the order of the day in the early '70s. It's the right choice, too, as a full 5.1 surround mix might have robbed the movie of some of its creepy atmosphere. Thankfully, there are English subtitles included, as some of the accents can make the dialogue difficult to understand at times.
Director Kotcheff and the movie's editor, Anthony Buckley, recorded a commentary for the film in 2009, which as been reproduced on this Blu-ray. They mostly share production anecdotes and discuss how certain sequences were staged, as well as highlight the material that was never made available prior to the restoration. Also included in the bonus feature section is a featurette on the process of restoring the movie, an interview with the director (originally recorded for the great Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood, which I cannot recommend enough), a Q&A featurette with Kotcheff recorded at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, an obituary for star Chips Rafferty, who died before the film was released and a vintage production featurette from 1971. Also included is a trailer gallery for other titles on the Drafthouse Films label, all of which are worthy or your attention.
One of the lost masterpieces of Australian cinema, Wake in Fright is a brutal, haunting examination of masculinity and displacement. Kudos to Drafthouse films, one of my new favorite distributors, for bringing the movie to a wider audience. This one deserves to be seen.
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