Mystery man of the long-ago Australian new wave, Ray Lawrence has evidently grown less finicky. Lawrence, now 59, made his feature debut with the phantasmagoric Bliss, famous flop of the 1985 Cannes Film Festival; he then licked his wounds and directed TV commercials for sixteen years before reappearing with somewhat more staid fare, the multi-stranded urban narrative Lantana. Jindabyne, by contrast, follows the latter's relative success by a mere five years.
Lantana took its title from an Australian plant. Jindabyne, the Aboriginal word for "valley," is named for a town in southeastern Australia that, flooded by a dam, lies at the bottom of a man-made lake. Like more than a few Australian movies, it's haunted by the primal crime committed against the Aborigines and is something of a ghost story. Like Lawrence's previous films, it's also very much a literary adaptation. As Lantana was blatantly Altmanesque in structure, Jindabyne references the master indirectly. Lawrence's actor-driven thriller elaborates on "So Much Water So Close to Home," perhaps the best-known story by the late, laconic Raymond Carver, having provided the linchpin for Altman's 1993 Carver-fest Short Cuts.
The premise is casually outrageous. Four family guys on a ritual fishing trip discover the body of a young woman floating downstream. It's eleven miles back to the road, it's the weekend, and so they tether the woman's corpse to a tree and continue to fish, drink and bullshit, with disastrous results for at least one man's marriage. Lawrence transposes the story from Carver's Pacific Northwest to the mountains of New South Wales and adds suspense and a racial component while elaborating on the characters.
Scarcely anonymous, the victim is a young Aborigine woman, and her murderer could be a serial killer. The unhappy central couple, Claire (Laura Linney) and Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), are made considerably more complicated. Both are immigrants to Australia: She's American, he's Irish. She suffered a breakdown after the birth of their son and is afraid to have another child; he's an ex-race-car driver, reduced to working in a garage and afraid of going gray. Where Altman suburbanized Carver's story, Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian maintain its economically depressed blue-collar milieu.
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As its title suggests, Jindabyne is a place where things are submerged. Opening with the circumstances of the young woman's murder, Lawrence presents a natural world of disturbed children and tormented adults, each involved in some sort of life-and-death struggle. Claire is pregnant and contemplating an abortion. Her little son and his more obviously screwed-up friend provoke an anticipatory scandal when they "sacrifice" their class pet. Even as the fishermen wade in water, the killer is upstream dumping his victim's body.
To compound these strange and sinister doings, Lawrence evokes the mysterious Aboriginal vibe. There are uncanny voices singing in the wires. The empty landscape cries out, and so does Stewart when he spies a body floating by the sacred spot where he and his brethren have decreed "No women allowed." Eden, however, cannot be protected. Once the guys return home and the story breaks — the newspaper headline "Men Fish Over Dead Body" accompanies a snapshot of the expedition's youngest member holding up his catch with a goofy grin — their evident indifference to the murdered woman becomes a political firestorm. Would they have been so disrespectful if the victim had been white? Angry young Aborigines trash Stewart's garage, painting him as an accessory in a racial hate crime.
Carver's story is told from Claire's point of view, but in Jindabyne, she's less passive, even something of a misguided activist — the repository of universal guilt. Claire is totally obsessed; identifying with the murder victim, she shrinks from her husband while clumsily reaching out to the bereaved family. Playing emotionally isolated characters, Linney and Byrne make for an impressively dour couple, in over their heads and hanging on to their separate lifeboats like grim death.
Hand it to Lawrence and Christian. Jindabyne is a soberly, if sluggishly, crafted movie in which the bitterness never stops. A lengthy Aboriginal healing ceremony notwithstanding, the overweening significance of Lawrence's studied compositions, slow dollies and portentous dissolves leave little room for catharsis. Although its characters regularly fail to communicate, Jindabyne is strangely filled with mystical congruencies — including the off-speed punchline, which, worthy of Carver, reduces divine justice to an inscrutable joke.