In the outback town of Bundanyabba, known to locals simply as “The Yabba,” a scrum of aggressive drunks, three or four men deep, form a human gambling ring in the backroom of a bar. Scenes like this have played out in movies before, around, say, cockfighting or bare-knuckle boxing matches. But in the center of this ring is a “spinner” flipping two coins in the air: Heads or tails, place your bets, 50/50 odds. The mind-boggling stupidity of this ritual is crucial to Wake In Fright, a still-shocking 1971 Australian cult discovery. It’s not like these men are assessing body types or looking for flaws in beaks and talons; they’re letting it ride on a series of coin flips that favor the fortunate but not the wise. At this moment, there’s little distinguishing them from animals, other than the reckless élan of their instincts.
And yet The Yabba has its allures, even for an educated man who holds it in unmistakable contempt. Effete schoolteacher Gary Bond intends only a brief stop in The Yabba en route to Sydney, where he plans to spend time among civilization before returning to the one-room schoolhouse in a much smaller backwater called Tiboonda. But before he can leave, an insidiously friendly cop (Chips Rafferty) insists on buying him a beer on a sweltering night. And then another. And then another. Soon, Bond has retreated to the backroom coin-flipping scrum, where he doubles and doubles his money until luck catches up to him and he goes broke. Now stranded in The Yabba indefinitely, Bond depends on the kindness of strangers like Donald Pleasence—and other less sophisticated yokels—to offer a soiled mattress and some kangaroo meat, and pour oceans of beer down his gullet.
The similarities between Wake In Fright and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which was released the same year, are striking: Both are about arrogant intellectuals stranded in a hick town where the men are violent louts, and both view this experience as an ugly rite of passage through which the hero gains maturity and claims his dormant manhood. Much like Dustin Hoffman, Bond isn’t entirely a victim of circumstance, but he is culpable in the hostility he attracts: If his contempt for this cesspool isn’t obvious enough in his tone, he comes out and makes it explicit, too. The difference is that Bond feels inexplicably drawn to this world he abhors: He wants to gamble, he wants to have that second drink, he wants to fire a few rifle-shots at kangaroos as they scamper across the prairie. He goes on a journey of self-discovery, and like Peckinpah’s film, Wake In Fright frames that journey as a cold-sweat visceral nightmare, a harrowing trial by fire.
Canadian director Ted Kotcheff, who would go on to make other studies in masculinity like North Dallas Forty and First Blood before easing into for-hire work on Weekend At Bernie’s and TV shows, shoots Wake In Fright into a yellow-orange haze, as if the movie itself were baking in the sun. He eases the audience into a setting that slowly consumes his hero in madness, to where the seeming civility of the cop and Pleasence’s “doctor” eventually gives way to Bond joining three other hard-drinking men in a drive-by kangaroo hunt that turns into an orgy of senseless violence. The fact that real kangaroos were sacrificed for the cause—the methods of which Kotcheff has defended at length—amplifies the horror that much more.
Though Wake In Fright has been rightfully included alongside other early Australian New Wave entries like Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout and Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris, it straddles the line between New Wave and Ozploitation, a swig of arthouse rotgut. Kotcheff supplies beautiful, textured images and a sophisticated examination of civilization and savagery, but the film is also a garish display of backwater roughnecks, a crude assault on the senses. It’s trash art of the highest order.
Key features: A Criterion-worthy package starts with a critical essay, an essay on the restoration, and the story of how Wake In Fright was nearly lost to history; a commentary track with Kotcheff and editor Anthony Buckley; a new featurette by Mark Hartley, who did the fun Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood; a 45-minute Q&A session from the Toronto Film Festival; and plenty more.