DUSTY, SWEATY, and seamy, Wake in Fright was lost for several years after its original release in 1971. While its absence may have enhanced its reputation as a "lost" landmark of Australian cinema, looking at the restored film now reveals it's as potent and intense and brutal as it must've been when it first came out.
John Grant (Gary Bond) is a schoolteacher stationed in the middle of nowhere—well, the middle of the Australian Outback, which is more or less the same thing. When the term ends, he boards a train to Sydney, stopping off overnight in the remote working-class town of Bundanyabba, referred to by locals as "the Yabba." Virtually forced into drinking himself into oblivion by friendly-seeming but ominous locals, John loses all his money and finds himself trapped in the dry, hot hell of the Yabba without any real way to leave.
John's multi-day binge is one of the more realistic cinematic depictions of that simultaneous euphoria and black abyss that comes with a booze-soaked downward spiral. It's bleak and awful and depressing, but director Ted Kotcheff (First Blood and Weekend at Bernie's—really!) allows a reasonable amount of humor in it as well. Each beery, perspiring townsperson is given excellent characterization, particularly Donald Pleasence as an alcoholic medical doctor who's kind and terrifying at alternate turns. And it's undeniably gripping to watch Bond's priggish, uptight protagonist devolve into sordidness, then claw his way back to humanity.
A note for the squeamish: There is a long sequence involving a kangaroo hunt that is entirely non-simulated. Yes, those are real little kangas and roos getting blasted by shotguns, and it's as difficult to watch as it sounds. It's a powerful illustration of the monstrous side that can emerge from people who have far too much sun, booze, and guns—and far too little to do.