Running Time 123 minutes
Directed by Ray Lawrence
Written by Beatrix Christian
Starring Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney
In Jindabyne, a suspenseful Australian tale of moral ambiguity based on a Raymond Carver short story, four men on a fishing trip in the picturesque Jindabyne lake area near the famed Snowy Mountains discover the mutilated corpse of an Aborigine girl who has been brutally murdered. Instead of ruining their holiday to search for a cell-phone signal, they decide there’s nothing more they can do anyway, so they leave the girl tethered to a branch for three days and wait until their fishing trip is over to report what they have found. When the news of their carelessness is discovered by the aboriginal community and dragged out in the press, the four men are judged irresponsible and ostracized to the point of violence. The rest of this thoughtful, absorbing and deeply troubling film is a quiet, day-to-day examination of the ordinary lives of unexceptional people who have never before been part of a tragedy. The social and political consequences have a profoundly damaging effect on their friends, families and neighbors, as well as their town.
At the center of the drama are Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), an embittered Irish garage mechanic and race-car driver manqué, and his American wife Claire (Laura Linney): a working-class couple with one young son and another baby on the way, and whose marriage was already on a downward spiral before the controversy. Haunted by an event in her past, when she deserted her family in a state of post-partum depression, Claire now finds herself questioning everything around her, unable to forgive her husband, confused about how to explain what’s happening to their son, wondering if they will spend the rest of their lives tortured by the nagging fear that Stewart did the wrong thing, and searching for her own moral center. As the tension mounts, the Aborigines turn the incident into a race crime, the media reports are tantamount to a crucifixion, and the men are forced, against their will, to admit guilt, self-doubt, fear and the need to justify their actions. Stewart withdraws into a private world of watching TV and drinking beer in a silent rage. Claire is so distraught by her overworked imagination that she endangers her pregnancy and her marriage. Without knowing it, Claire is also under constant surveillance by the dead girl’s mysterious killer. There’s a lot going on here, and you keep waiting for something to happen, but nothing ever does. For a film so loaded with the potential for dramatic conflict, director Ray Lawrence takes forever to get from Point A to Point B. You could do a needlework pillow in half the time.
Still, there are compensations. The source material, Carver’s story “So Much Water So Close to Home,” was mined to better effect by Robert Altman in Short Cuts. Transforming it from Los Angeles to Australia seems like an unnecessary stretch, but to his credit, director Lawrence links every fragment of the story, however banal, to the artificial lake that sustains both the town and the aboriginal outcasts who settled it originally, giving Jindabyne a sophistication that is spiritually challenging. The acting is meticulous. Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney never make a move that is tenuous or clumsy, and the detours in their sour relationship unravel with a universal pain. The film also features the scenic pastoral beauty of rugged locales in southeastern New South Wales, which you don’t often see in Australian movies. Jindabyne requires patience, but the payoff is rewarding.