Wake In Fright is a hell of a movie, and I mean that literally and figuratively. It has often been wrongly described as the inability of a man to escape the clutches of a town which seem to tighten on him every passing day. Like every great work of art, it is about something deeper than it cares to admit and at its crux, Wake In Fright is rather about the inability of a man to convince himself why he needs to escape. Free food, free beer, free housing, free sex and a great time with mates while doing absolutely no work. Now what could possibly be wrong with that ? Bundanyabba does seem to be a paradise on Earth. Yet show it to a 10 year old kid and even he would fish out the moral murkiness the happenings of the movie are surrounded with.
Is it the town that is insane for housing tenants who seem to have been raised in zoos, educated only to the base instincts ? Or is it John Grant who is insane for yearning to be a part of this savagery forsaking all sensibility ? Or is it we that are insane for having made moral order synonymous with the mundane, raising brows and coughing disapproving sighs when everyone happens to be just having a good time ? If it is the answers to these questions you are looking for while watching Wake In Fright, I believe you will be terribly disappointed. Like all great horror movies, it tries to evoke rather than supply.
The premise is stark plain and quaint. John Grant, a laid back schoolteacher in an outback town in Australia travels to Bundanyabba by train during vacations. He plans to stay there for the night and set out in the morning to the airport to board a flight to Sydney to meet his girlfriend. Yet, trouble ensues in gambling as it always does, leaving John stranded penniless in Bundanyabba, a town where waiting for a bus would be inscrutably bound with thoughts of whether it has a darned bus line or not. The problem with most movies is that the premise seems to gradually develop into the plot, yet in the case of Wake In Fright, saying that the movie is just about these above lines would be like looking at a brick in the Great Wall Of China and saying that’s all there is to it.
Most films, even great ones, evaporate like mist once you’ve returned to the real world; they leave memories behind, but their reality fades fairly quickly. The terrifying part of Wake In Fright is that once it ends, it seems the reality of the movie has transcended into that of the world and it is this macabre that the viewer seems to be walking into. We realize that John Grant was just a vessel and it had been us, the viewers, that where his mind and soul all through.
Another stratagem of looking at Wake In Fright is through the prism of Jungian transcendence. John becomes conscious of the shadow and his anima through the course of the movie. The denouement hints at a possibility of self-realization as well, a sense of heightened understanding of how all of our days and ways are a fragile structure perched uneasily atop the hungry jaws of nature that will thoughtlessly devour us. How life is a spread of limitless ennui, interrupted briefly by insanity. Yet, no hints are given on whether John becomes conscious of his archetypal spirit. Is it to catechize whether the ordeals sustained and sacrifices made for enlightenment are worth the price of one’s soul ? We don’t know. Kotcheff doesn’t say.
Michael Haneke while talking about his Funny Games once said ‘Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn’t need the film, and anybody who stays does’. If the very same can be said about Wake In Fright, I am darn sure no walkouts will ensue when it plays. We do need this movie, and to be frank, we need it very badly. And considering how it has emerged from all ruination and shambles to its past glory, I guess it needs us too.
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