If the plot for the ruminative new drama Jindabyne sounds vaguely familiar—a group of men locate a dead woman’s body while on a fishing trip—that’s because it’s based on the Raymond Carver short story “So Much Water, So Close to Home.” Carver’s minimalist tale also planted the story seed for one of the segments in Robert Altman’s L.A.-bound anthology Short Cuts(the one with Huey Lewis’ prosthetic wiener). While Altman’s film expanded somewhat on Carver’s story (which doesn’t run much more than a thousand words), Jindabyne runs away with it, taking it all the way to New South Wales, Australia.
The film takes place in the tiny backwater town of Jindabyne, Australia. Immediately, Lawrence sets up a palpable aura of dread. In the opening scene, a young aboriginal woman is waylaid on a lonely highway by a wild-eyed geezer. This shocking opening sequence emphasizes the sense of isolation and vulnerability omnipresent in the vast, desolate stretches of Outback Australia. (The opening may also mislead viewers into thinking Jindabyne is more of a straightforward mystery/thriller than it actually is.)
After this, we are introduced to several residents of sleepy little Jindabyne. Chief among them is Irish exile Stewart Kane (Gabriel Byrne) and his American wife Claire (Laura Linney). Stewart runs the local gas station, where tattered old newspaper clippings taped to the wall tell us he was once a popular race car driver. Obviously times have changed for Stewart, who’s now struggling to make ends meet and stoically navigating a quiet midlife crisis. Stewart’s one joy in life seems to be the semiannual fishing trip he takes with three of his buddies: Carl (John Howard), Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis) and Billy (Simon Stone).
Shortly after arriving at their remote mountaintop retreat, the buddies stumble across the mutilated body of the young girl we met in the opening scene. Initially shocked, the men soon find a string of excuses for not hiking out and immediately notifying authorities. Instead, they tie the girl’s leg to a tree branch to keep her from floating downstream and get back to some highly productive flyfishing. Two days later, they return to civilization and report their findings to local police.
The fishermen’s actions immediately surface in the press, resulting in a nasty backlash from the residents of Jindabyne—particularly from the dead girl’s devastated family. What motivated these men to perform such a callous act? Was it misogyny? Casual racism? Or pure, stupid misplaced priorities?
The film spends a good deal of time contemplating such questions. Ultimately, the lack of empathy on the part of these men is reflected in their everyday lives. Everyone profiled here seems to have their own secret problems. Emotional and moral fractures that were already in place are now magnified. It is hinted, for example, that Claire suffered a major case of postpartum depression, abandoning her husband and young son for more than a year. Those scars have obviously not yet healed, and the newfound stress only serves to open up the Kane family’s old wounds.
The atmosphere in which Jindabyne operates is one of pervasive but unspoken fear. Stewart and Claire’s young son Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss) spends his time with a precocious young troublemaker named Caylin-Calandria (the excellent Eva Lazzaro). Caylin-Calandria is being raised by her grandmother and grandfather (one of Stewart’s fishing buddies) after the untimely death of her single mother. The little girl is now obsessed with the concept of death, a fear/fascination she passes on to Tom.
Even the film’s chosen setting adds to the portentous mood. Seems Jindabyne (a real town) is famous for the fact that, decades ago, it was flooded to make way for a dam. Jindabyne was relocated, but the old homestead still sits under the local reservoir like a watery ghost town, giving birth to all sorts of local legends and campfire tales. Lawrence’s sunbleached lensing adds even more to the film’s deathly pallor.
At just over two hours, there are moments when Jindabyne seems too diffuse, covering too many people and too many issues. An ending as morally ambiguous as the preceding storyline may also serve to frustrate those looking for the comfort of a tidy closure. Still, the caustic, award-caliber performances of Linney and Byrne as a couple in the process of self-immolation ground Jindabyne in the sort of “dirty realism” in which the celebrated Mr. Carver so deftly dabbled.
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