For many years "Wake In Fright," which premiered at Cannes in 1971 and was shown briefly in America under the title "Outback," was considered gone completely. There were rumors that it had been whittled down to a single remaining print, badly damaged and poorly preserved, but after a ten-year search, the original negative elements were found in Pittsburgh and a print was painstakingly restored by the National Film and Sound Archives of Australia. In 2009 the film was named a "Cannes favorite" and screened again at the festival, this time under the supervision of guest curator Martin Scorsese, who had seen the film at the festival in 1971 and was, unsurprisingly, blown away.
The night starts out at a rowdy pub, where Grant befriends Jock (Chips Rafferty), a rough-around-the-edges constable, who introduces him to an underground gambling parlor where the blokes are playing “two-up,” a game that is built around whether a pair of pennies will land heads or tails. (The simplicity of the game is both sad and sinister.) Grant finds himself on a winning streak, returning to his crummy hotel room with his pockets stuffed with cash. Then he gets greedy, goes back, and loses it all. Despondent, the next day he falls in with a bunch of local lowlifes, including Tim Hynes (Al Thomas), who invites him to his home for an endless marathon of drinking that climaxes (if that’s the right word) in an unsuccessful sexual liaison with Tim’s daughter, Janette (Sylvia Kay, alluring in a shopworn way). But it’s Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance, less than a decade before his career was both rejuvenated and effectively shuttered with his turn in John Carpenter’s “Halloween”) who Grant makes the biggest connection with. An alcoholic who was banned from practicing medicine in Sydney, he lives in a rickety shack whose lone decorative touches are the spools of gummy flypaper hanging from the ceiling. We should pause here to note that this is maybe the best performance Pleasance has ever given, equal parts looseness and intensity, with every word containing some kind of homespun outback wisdom (his thoughts on Janette are shockingly progressive, too). You can’t help but be dazzled.
Infamously, the film climaxes in a kangaroo hunt that is vicious, upsetting, and 100% real. The gang goes out to the bush and finds kangaroos to kill, something that they were incapable of doing during the daytime because they were too drunk. Spotlights, one of the drunkards cheerfully explains, hypnotize the kangaroos. So as long as you shine a light on them, they’ll keep still and are easy to kill. The other, more unsettling way of killing them is by grabbing them by the tail and stabbing them to death, something that Grant takes part in (as he does, we see nearly subliminal, dreamlike flashes of the girl he left behind and the men whose company he’s decided to keep). It’s grim and grisly and a truly operatic way to hit bottom, and in keeping with the rest of the movie, is painfully Australian – he kills a creature that’s a national symbol of the country. Symbolism alert!
“Wake In Fright” is the quintessential Australian exploitation film, one in which a character is tested by the country’s harsh elements and comes out the other side transformed (often baptized, literally, in blood). The fact that it was directed by journeyman filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian at the time known for his British dramas (he would later direct everything from “North Dallas Forty” to “First Blood” to “Weekend at Bernie’s”), only adds to its eerie mystique and oddball universality. “Wake In Fright” is a harrowing journey, but one you’ll likely want to take again, very soon. [A]