Jindabyne (Australia, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Jindabyne, an adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story "So Much Water So Close to Home," is an examination of a fractured family and how mistakes and miscommunication can lead to the widening of pre-existing fissures. While these themes are in the source material, director Ray Lawrence (Lantana) has added new elements: the racial divide between Indigenous Australians and whites in Australia and the way in which media exploitation of a mistake can cause it to become blown out of proportion. All this occurs in an atmosphere that seeps danger and seemingly promises impending doom.

It all begins with a fishing trip - a "boys' weekend out." Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), Gregory (Chris Haywood), Carl (John Howard), and Billy (Simon Stone) pack up their gear for a long drive followed by a five-hour hike to their "secret spot" - an isolated area by a river. Before they have even set up camp, Stewart makes an astounding discovery: the nude dead body of a girl floating near the shore. After conferring with the other three, he ties the girl's leg to a tree so she won't drift away. Then, instead of going immediately to summon help, the men elect to go forward with their vacation, not calling the police until they're done. This misjudgment has long-lasting consequences.

Stewart's relationship with his wife, Claire (Laura Linney), is already strained. At some point after the birth of their son, Claire left him to spend time with her sister. (This was presumably the result of postpartum depression, although that is not explicitly stated.) Now, she's again pregnant and thinking of an abortion because she doesn't want a repeat of what happened with her son. When she learns of Stewart's callous actions regarding the body, she becomes obsessed with making amends to the girl's family for her husband's inaction.

Lawrence and his screenwriter, Beatrix Christian, have used Carver's story as the skeleton of their movie. Carver's work has been adapted for the screen before, most notably by Robert Altman in Short Cuts. Jindabyne is faithful to its source but enriches and broadens it beyond the scope of its 25 pages. To expand this to fill out a two-hour motion picture, there's a lot of room for the development of themes and characters.

Jindabyne is primarily a drama but Lawrence frames it as a thriller. There's a murderer lurking about. We catch glimpses of him from time-to-time, and there's one scene in which it appears he may strike again. Numerous scenes are established in such a way that we're led to believe something bad is going to happen. Whenever characters are under water, they are shot from below, recalling the famous opening sequence from Jaws. There are no sharks around Jindabyne, but who knows what dangers lurk in the supposedly haunted waters? Lawrence's decision to employ such an unsettled tone keeps us involved, although there's a sense at the end that he may have overplayed his hand. Once it becomes clear this is not a thriller, it's legitimate to question some of his tactics and wonder whether one scene in particular is nothing more than a tease to add a little suspense. It's interesting to compare that scene to its counterpart in the story. The events are similar but the intent is different.

While Jindabyne could have gone in any number of directions, it becomes primarily about how Stewart's decision alongside the river impacts his relationship with Claire. There are other repercussions, but the shift to this marriage is where the focus lies. Before this event, Claire is already on uncertain ground, wracked by guilt over having deserted her family. Now, she feels betrayed by her husband and needs to act. Her attempts to find redemption, whether real or illusory, comprise the film's final third and lay the groundwork for the concluding scenes and the hope they offer.

In some ways, Jindabyne is a curious film. It is primarily a character study, yet key aspects of the central relationship are undefined. The cinematography tends toward panoramic shots highlighting the Australian landscape rather than the more intimate camera work we have come to expect from this sort of movie. All of this is intentional. Lawrence wants to make a movie that resonates emotionally but he also wants to highlight the haunting mystery of the land and how it plays a role in the interpersonal dynamics that form the movie's core. The result is a mature and challenging motion picture, and something that will stick with viewers after the screen has gone dark.

Jindabyne (Australia, 2006)

Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 2007-04-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1