Wake in Fright
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Writer: Evan Jones
Based on: Kenneth Cook‘s novel
Cast: Gary Bond, Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson
Part of: /slash Christmas special
Seen on: 17.12.2015
John Grant (Gary Bond) works as a teacher in the middle of nowhere. He hates it, but he has to work of his debts. Fortunately the Christmas holidays are approaching and John can return to Sidney to see his fiancée. But first he hast to take the train to the next bigger town. There he meets Jock (Chips Rafferty), a police man, who keeps inviting him for drinks and finally John starts to gamble, promptly losing all his money. Now stranded, he gets swept up in a drunken, violent haze.
Wake in Fright did not work for me. I thought that the social criticism – most of what made the movie worthwhile in the first place – fell short and remained superficial. Instead of engaging, the movie was mostly just exhausting.
I can see the critical/sarcastic intent that comes with the film. Australia is pretty much made up of “middle of nowhere” and there is nothing to do there. So the men start to drink and to gamble and to hunt, generally proving their masculinity to each other at all times. And the cruelty, stupidity and alcoholism that comes with that is what passes as great entertainment. John originally isn’t one of “those guys” but he can fit in if he has to, and he can even relish it for a while. Ultimately though, it’s destructive behavior that culminates in a suicide attempt. When John returns to his school after the holidays, he leaves us with the thought that it was “the best vacation ever”.
I can see the criticism of this kind of toxic hypermasculinity in the film, but it was just so superficial. “Look, we behave like cave men and think that’s fun! Well, it’s not. It’s actually pretty disgusting and self-destructive” seems to be the entire message of the film. And I can’t help but wait for something more. Especially since I got the distinct feeling that should the people who would behave that way watch the film, they’d cheer along and would not feel much criticized. It ends on the best vacation ever note after all.
Add to that that the film features a real kangaroo hunt (shot with professional hunters, as the credits inform us, they decided after advising with animal rights organizations to include it and to point out that kangaroos are a threatened species) that is so cruel, I could barely stomach watching it. Particularly since it is really, really long. While I assume that is was kept that long to really hammer home the message that these people are awful human beings, it’s not like we couldn’t have guessed this from the rest of the film or from a hunt scene that wasn’t as long. I realize that the intent was to make the audience uncomfortable, but about halfway through the scene, my outrage and disgust gave way to annoyance that I still had to watch this shit. I kept considering walking out of the film for a while. Especially since it felt endless anyway.
In my opinion, criticism works best when it is not only on a cerebral level, but you also connect to it on an emotional level. Wake in Fright with its relentless masculine hyperdrive kept pushing me away and after a while I just didn’t give a flying fuck about any of it. Maybe it would have been different had I been Australian or male, but since neither is the case, it really failed to impress me.