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Bad stuff comes out of the water in the Australian drama Jindabyne. The film is based on Raymond Carver’s short story “So Much Water So Close to Home,” which also was adapted for Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, where it was just a strand in a much larger narrative. Here, Carver’s tale is the basis for the entire story, but scripter Beatrix Christian has expanded its implications by adding the tricky subject of race. That’s a clever strategy but not an especially satisfying one.
Jindabyne is the name of a town, and there are actually two of them: The original is now under a man-made lake, a brooding metaphor about the submerged past, and its replacement is a small hamlet nearby on higher ground, where many of the locals make their living from fishing and skiing. Onetime auto racer Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) runs a gas station and loves to go angling. After establishing the central characters, including Stewart’s three fishing buddies and his American-accented wife, Claire (Laura Linney), director Ray Lawrence heads into the wilderness. There, as in Short Cuts, the men find a floating body, which they don’t report to authorities until the weekend is over. When news circulates that the men left a woman’s corpse in the river for three days—tied to a tree so it wouldn’t float downstream—the media are outraged. So is Claire.
Much of the recrimination takes place among the four men and their spouses or girlfriends, but there’s another factor. The victim is an aborigine—“blackfella” in the local parlance—and her community is deeply offended. Keeping the body in the water is seen not only as a racist degradation but also as a violation of the group’s elaborate taboos regarding death. (The film opens with a warning that it depicts dead people, which is forbidden by aboriginal custom.) When not feuding with her husband or his tartly defensive mother, Claire tries to make things right with the dead woman’s family and friends. Her efforts are awkward, and the grievers are not easily assuaged. Further, Claire’s attempts at conciliation reawaken Stewart’s resentment about a period, never fully explained, during which she fled her husband and infant son.
Jindabyne was directed by Ray Lawrence, whose evocative 2001 film, Lantana, explored similar themes. As in that film, the central characters’ marriage is deeply troubled, and the fate of a young person seems to express the fierce arbitrariness of life. But where Lantana mingled a family drama with a detective story, Jindabyne takes some of its cues from the serial-killer genre, yielding a tale that’s oversaturated with foreboding. The first scene introduces the victim and her apparently demented killer, who returns several times, suggesting that a second slaying is inevitable. It isn’t, and the closer the movie gets to the usual mad-murderer tropes, the less interesting it becomes.
The relationship between Stewart and Claire’s young son, Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss), and his friend and neighbor, Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazzaro), is another source of dread; the disturbed girl, who’s being raised by her grandparents after her mother’s death, likes to collect lifeless animals, and the movie strongly hints that she’ll add a drowned Tom to her collection. (The standard outback drama, as established by Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, features close-ups of wild animals; in Jindabyne, those creatures tend to be dead or dying.) Lawrence also shoots several scenes from the point of view of an apparent stalker, suggesting that all the major characters are being observed by an ominous stranger. These are cheap tactics that distract from the movie’s serious themes. Where Lantana played as an unusually smart genre picture, Jindabyne is a legit drama that’s hobbled by its detours into genre territory.