Normally I come up with a Reconsidered post as I'm writing something up - thinking about things that wouldn't work in an unspoiled post, but that bear mentioning or closer examination. In this case, the whole idea hit me, months later, all at once out of nowhere.
Well, not quite out of nowhere. Basically, the thought process started with me thinking about a short story (well, the beginnings of a short story) I wrote ages ago about a man who takes a vacation from his middle-management job. He's one of those guys who hasn't grown up yet, still tries to party like he did when he was twenty years younger. He goes to some resort town, and his first night there, he gets so wasted that he blacks out. When he comes to, he's neatly dressed, everything's in its place, and his hotel room smells of bleach. It isn't until he checks his digital camera that he discovers that during the night, he brought a woman back to his room and had sex with her. After which he tortured, murdered, and dismembered her. In his blackout state, he did all of this and cleaned up after himself.
Yeah, creepy, ooohhhhhh, whatever. My problem at the time was that I couldn't figure out why he did it, how he did it, or how to get him out of that room. More recently, I'd watched a pretty disturbing documentary on the drug scopolamine, and it gave me some ideas of things I could do to flesh out the story.
In Wake In Fright, John Grant goes on a bender in a small Australian Outback mining town on his way to Sydney to see his girlfriend, and the bender takes him to some low, awful places. It's a classic piece of Australian cinema, and a nice restored version of it is getting a limited release in the U.S. In mentioning this, I point out that although Wake In Fright sort of belongs to the same family of stories as Deliverance or Straw Dogs, it's more nightmarish and surreal than either of those films. And that's when the light bulb went off.
What if the events of Wake In Fright didn't actually happen?
As I think about it, the majority of the movie could very well be a nightmare that Grant has while sleeping off a blackout alcohol bender that never took him further than the bar in Tiboonda. This interpretation also suggests that Grant is probably a closeted gay man in pretty deep denial.
Returned Serviceman's club. In a conventional narrative, these would be mistakes. In a nightmare, they are an economical expression of Grant's view of the Outback. These details don't matter to his subconscious, he just sees the Outback as a vast desert where coarse men drink, gamble, fight, and participate in archaic rituals.
Grant doesn't want to be around these people, but he doesn't have a choice, and so he has a few drinks, mirroring the drink he had at the bar in Tiboonda. There's nothing to do here but work and drink. He's not working, so he might as well drink. Everyone's very friendly and gregarious to him - almost intensely so. It's friendliness and hospitality as aggression, drawn shrill and warped in a funhouse mirror. Everyone he talks to is willing to buy him a drink or some food, and somehow underneath what should be perceived as friendliness and common courtesy, there's a constant hum of hostility, which makes sense if you resent being there in the first place. He's kind of an asshole, and responding to kindness as if it's hostility is an asshole thing to do. We're seeing the Outback through Grant's eyes, or at least his subconscious.
Things don't really go from bad to worse until Grant decides to drop some money on a game of two-up. This is him hoping for a way out of the Outback. Money is what's keeping him in the Outback - if he quits his job, he forfeits his bond, and that's not money he can afford to lose. Acquiring a life-changing amount of money through the operation of chance is a classic fantasy for people dissatisfied with their current circumstances, and of course he wins his first bet, He is so close to paying out his bond after his first bet, but loses everything on his second. His way out is right in front of him, but it keeps being taken away. He is left with no choice but to embrace the hopelessness of his situation. He is stuck in the Outback, he is never getting out.
The nightmare logic of the narrative bleeds out of Grant's bender into daylight, as he attempts to leave Bundanyabba, in the ragged remains of his suit - looking more and more like Tydon - dragging his suitcase and the rifle he acquired during his drunken night with Tydon. But even here, the truck driver who picks him up hitchhiking ends up bringing him right back to Bundanyabba, as if the town has no exit, as if Bundanyabba (and by extension what it represents) is impossible to escape. No matter how hard Grant tries, he can't leave. Finally, he returns to Tydon's hovel - comes back to who and what he is afraid he will become - sits down with the rifle and, at least initially, considers killing Tydon, (the man he is afraid he will be) before he puts the rifle in his own mouth, as if to annihilate whatever is left of himself. He puts his mouth around the barrel briefly, as if to fellate it, before recoiling in disgust. He can't face it yet.
Then, just as easily as he slipped into depravity, he rises above it, as one rises to consciousness from an especially deep and vivid dream. He gets enough money for train fare, and heads back to Tiboonda. The journey is as without motion or time as the trip out. When next we see him, he's cleaned up and returning to the boarding house bar to have a drink. The bartender looks at him with faint, weary disgust, like he's seen this before. Did he even need to leave Tiboonda to get blackout drunk and fall into the black pit of his subconscious, where everything the Outback represents is compressed into "the 'Yabba" and the sweaty, reptilian "Doc" Tydon lurks as a reminder of what he could be, or even perhaps what he already is?