Heart of darkness
Sometimes, not often, a movie can lead me to a particular physical reaction. It starts somewhere in the pit of the stomach and feels like the sudden weightlessness of a rollercoaster. The muscles clench and then twist, sharply. Beads of sweat seep break the skin and my mouth goes slacks in a wide, bare grin. It’s a nasty, festering little feeling, laced with adrenaline and violence. It’s what happens when a movie dives into uglier territory than I was ready to go. Here’s one of those.
John Grant (Gary Bond, a bit of a poor man’s Peter O’Toole) is a teacher at an Outback settlement that seems to consist of two buildings: a schoolhouse and a hotel. Desperate to escape his stifling job, he resolves to use the Christmas Holiday to return to Sydney and his girlfriend Robin. On the way he stops at Bundunyabba, a mining town on the edge of the desert. It’s a working class kind of place, the bars filled with rough, sunburnt men sweating cheap beer. An amiable lawman (Chips Rafferty) takes a liking to Grant and offers to buy him a drink. “Honestest little town in Australia this is, mate,” he offers. Grant can hardly keep the sneer off his face long enough to swallow the beer. But after an ill-advised gamble with his savings, Grant finds himself stranded and penniless. He eventually falls into the company of Joe, Dick and Doc Tynes (Donald Pleasance, riveting), three drunken louts who decide to test his mettle on a beer guzzling hunting trip into the Outback night.
Wake in Fright is a particularly fetid little entry into the “thin veneer of human civilization” school of William Golding and Joseph Conrad. But Wake in Fright isn’t the schoolyard devolution of Lord of the Flies or the unsettling hallucination of Apocalypse Now. This is an Outback movie. And if any landscape in the world fills me with abject existential terror, it’s the Outback. The Outback doesn’t have the majestic icons of Monument Valley, nor the beguiling, sinister sands of Lawrence’s Sahara. The Outback is a damned land. So vicious and raw that the danger seems metaphysical*. And in Wake in Fright, the most dangerous thing slithering on the sun-seared surface is the white man.
The Yabba is a brutal place and it draws brutally simple men. A seething mass of male flesh surrounds the gambling arena, waiting to play. A man walks to the center of the ring and flips two coins. Players guess heads or tails. Winners get cash.
Grant is not amused. “I’m just bored with it,” he vents, “The aggressive hospitality, the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are.”
“Discontent is the luxury of the well-to-do,” smiles Tynes in reply, “It’s death to farm out here. There’s worse than death in the mines. D’you want them to sing opera as well?”
And here is where Wake in Fright distinguishes itself from rural nightmares like Deliverance, it doesn’t limit its evisceration of human nature to the lower strata of society. Like its spiritual sibling, Straw Dogs, the true target is Grant’s educated intellectual, the one who considers himself above the deadly games of bored masculinity but joins in regardless. As the night passes Grant finds moments of clarity and self-awareness, but he doesn’t stop. And he still considers himself better than the people around him. Tynes, another educated man, accepts his animal nature with a twinkling of madness in his crystal eyes. As the lawman says, it’s an honest town. Grant is just a visitor.
Okay, I’ll stop dicking around now. You want to hear about the hunt. Of course you want to hear about the hunt. Few movies in cinema history have been as clearly eclipsed by the notoriety of one scene as Wake in Fright*. An hour into the movie the three drunks and Grant decide to go hunt kangaroos. And for fifteen minutes afterwards, my face was frozen in a horrified rictus smile of horror and disgust. Wake in Fright uses footage of a real kangaroo hunt. This means real animals in the wild being killed in horrible, explicit ways. And not just a few. It’s a long, bloody massacre. It is exactly as grotesque and upsetting as you think. All animal lovers are forewarned. You’ll find more information here and here. I strongly urge you to read those links, even if you never want to watch the movie, just so you know all the facts.
But, the thing about the hunt is that it accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s supposed to be grotesque and hellish. It’s supposed to be obscene and revolting. And it is. And here we must consider two important questions:
What acts can be justified for the purpose of art?
From Blue is the Warmest Color to Cannibal Holocaust, the question is a huge and complicated, deserving of far more careful deliberation than this review can afford. However, speaking personally, any art that intentionally causes the death of an animal which would have otherwise been alive is morally compromised in the most horrific sense. But, thus far, I can’t tell where my moral judgment comes down on Wake in Fright. And this is because my judgment is impaired by one undeniable fact: I absolutely flat-out loved Wake in Fright. It is one of the rawest, ugliest, most powerful films I have ever experienced. It is a nauseating hallucination from a dark, dark place in human nature and it was spellbinding.
So, the second question:
If this movie made me feel so bad, why did I love it and why do I recommend it to those who feel they can stomach it?
And I’m more comfortable answering this question. I know there are many people who do not or cannot watch movies that lead to extreme reactions. This happens for many reasons. My grandmother, who I love dearly, can’t stand to watch movies because the emotional experience is too draining for her. Other people don’t see why they should spend time with something that makes them feel bad. But here’s the thing, if you want to respect and experience movies (or games or anything really) as a medium of artistic expression, you have to allow them to depict the entirety of the human experience. And the human experience isn’t all happy fun times. That’s why a lot of people go to media to “get away from it”. But if art is relevant and a meaningful expression of human nature, you have to let it be scary and sad and grueling and boring and all those things.
And Wake in Fright is art. Art in the capital “A” I-am-judging-the-artistic-merit-of-something meaning of the word. And it is morally dubious and disgusting and wrong. And it’s also cutting and precise and thrilling and sincere and cynical and evil and absolutely amazing. It is a truly staggering film and I, for one, am glad it was rescued from oblivion*.
*That story can be found here.
Warning: Real life animal violence.