Eugene Weekly : Movie Review : 5.31.07


The Men from Snowy River
Disintegration in a small Australian town

JINDABYNE: Directed by Ray Lawrence. Written by Beatrix Christian, based upon the short story “So Much Water So Close to Home” by Raymond Carver. Cinematography, David Williamson. Music, Paul Kelly. Starring Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne. Sony Pictures Classics, 2007. R. 123 minutes.

Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) and Claire (Laura Linney) in Jindabyne

To most Americans, Australia is a confusing juxtaposition of open spaces (which we appreciate) and floppy accents (which we don’t). Having never been, what I know of life Down Under consists of the cultural bits that have reached these shores in my lifetime, like Men at Work or beer in a big blue can. If I can think of Australian movies at all, I think of Walkabout or Gallipoli, or a leathery Paul Hogan brandishing a “knoife” in Crocodile Dundee. That’s a shame, because judging by last year’s The Proposition and the fine new drama Jindabyne, Australian films are examining familial relationships in ways that make their American counterparts appear timid.

Jindabyne is based upon a single short story by the American writer Raymond Carver. Carver, who was born in Clatskanie, Ore., embraced minimalism to stunning effect in the 1970s and 1980s, using a spare but overtly masculine style to reveal the heartbreak of working class life. Carver’s stories read like templates for longer works, so it isn’t surprising that when they’re developed into film scripts, the scripts inevitably grow more layered and complicated. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Short Cuts, although based upon a number of Carver stories, manages to keep Carver’s essential weirdness intact, probably due to the appreciation Robert Altman had for the material. The source for Jindabyne (“So Much Water So Close to Home”) is a mere nine pages long, so naturally some fleshing out needed to happen. What’s surprising is how deeply affecting the film is given how much the screenplay differs from the story.

In both the short story and Jindabyne, the essential premise is the same: Four fishing buddies discover the dead body of a girl in a river deep within a wilderness area. After weighing their options, the men continue fishing, reasoning that nothing can be done for the girl at this point. The trouble is, once their decision is revealed, the men are considered pariahs by the townsfolk. The police consider pressing criminal charges. The accusations fly. But the fishermen’s wives are far from united in their reaction, setting family and friends against each another. Literally overnight, four decent, hardworking men have metamorphosed into accomplices to a grisly crime. Some even suggest they were more than accomplices.

Carver’s story is about moral ambivalence, how the death of a stranger doesn’t make us feel something. Jindabyne (a tidy township in New South Wales; the place-name is at once childlike and haunting) isn’t quite so subtle, but it’s remarkable nonetheless. For Claire (Laura Linney) — the wife of Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), who found the body but won’t discuss it — the dead girl is a kindred spirit, a physically dead counterpart to Claire’s own emotional death. Pointing her car towards the girl’s funeral, Claire embarks on what amounts to a quest for understanding, which puts her in both spiritual and physical danger.

A small detail near the conclusion of Jindabyne isn’t convincing. But otherwise, from the opening scenes until very near the end, Jindabyne sustains an ominous feel. It’s not unlike Babel in that considerable tension is created by the slow convergence of multiple storylines. Jindabyne is a confident, stylized and highly literary film, with the depth and nuance and mystery of great fiction. It’s not as pared-down as Carver’s original version, but in the numbness and isolation of these characters, you can feel his spirit moving through.    

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