Eddie Pensier writes:
Ray Lawrence’s “Jindabyne” (2006) is a murder drama, not a murder mystery. The identity of the killer is clear from the first scene: creepy electrician Park accosts teenaged Susan O’Connor in her car, murders her, and dumps her body in the Snowy River. Neither the motive for the murder nor the search for its perpetrator have any bearing on what unfolds.
Based on Raymond Carver’s “So Much Water, So Close To Home” (which also formed part of the plotline to Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts”), “Jindabyne” is only Lawrence’s third movie in twenty years. (The last, 2001’s “Lantana”, won a slew of AFI awards and earned Lawrence comparisons to Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson.) It tells the story of how the discovery of Susan’s body by four men during a fishing trip, has explosive effects on the men, their families, and the entire community. Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), Jindabyne’s local mechanic and a former race-car driver, is married to the fragile Claire (Laura Linney), who works for the lecherous local chemist. Claire had a nervous breakdown shortly after giving birth to their son Tom, and left the family for 18 months. She’s back now, but tensions still simmer.
Stewart and his mates Carl (John Howard), Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis) and Billy (Simon Stone) go on their annual fishing trip and stumble across the dead body. Fatefully, they decide to tie her to a rock and continue fishing for another day and night before reporting the crime to the police. The town, the men’s families, and the indigenous community (the dead girl is Aboriginal) shame the men for “fishing over a dead body”, while the men can’t understand what the big deal is, since she was, in Stewart’s words, “beyond help”.
The nexus of the film’s conscience struggles is embodied in Claire. Her desire to know all the facts, talk things through, and deal with everyone’s feelings about the tragedy is (it must be said) very female and (it must also be said) very American. The Aboriginal characters express themselves in bursts of anger or clipped silence, while the white Australian characters just want to move on, if not merely dismiss the entire affair. Claire’s insistence on collecting money for the Susan’s family, attempts to reconcile with the indigenous community, and ultimately crashing her funeral (she tells them she has come to “pay her respects”, and the victim’s furious brother retorts, quite rightly, “What respect?”) is cringe-inducing to the viewer, but very necessary to her. It’s almost painful to watch her, a woman who knows her husband little, herself even less and her adopted country not at all, try to come to grips with a situation that is as foreign to her as the cultures clashing around her.
To make things worse, the film’s climactic scene at the funeral is presented as an opportunity for Claire and the other white folks to purge their guilt. Claire has been watching at a distance when she sees Stewart, Carl, and the others approaching. It’s set up as an Oprahfied moment of “healing” and “closure”, and yet when the Aboriginal elder responds to Stewart’s halting apology by spitting in his face and throwing dirt at him, I wanted to cheer. Not everything can be reconciled.
Linney’s keen performance anchors the film, but Byrne also does a terrific job as Stewart, the former hotshot trying to grasp what peace he can while denying his advancing age (much amusement is taken from a botched, shoe-polish-black home dye job he attempts). Howard and Deborra-Lee Furness are excellent as the laconic Carl and his hard-drinking wife Jude.
Lawrence creates some truly stunning images of the Kosciuszko/Jindabyne/Snowy Mountains area (located about two hours from Rancho Pensier), but the film is too sprawling and uncontained to have the real dramatic thrust it ought to. Screenwriter Beatrix Christian, adapting Carver, can’t resist out-Carvering her source. Feckless men and miserable women aren’t enough: there must also be racial undertones, AND a motherless little girl, AND the girl conspires with Tom to kill a guinea pig and a sparrow, AND hey, how did that girl’s mother die, anyway, AND a meddling Irish mother-in-law, AND the fact that one of the men’s girlfriend was formerly a lesbian (I know this because it was mentioned at least four times), AND lots of close-ups of electrical power lines because the killer is an electrician, and, you know, symbolism, AND other things I surely can’t remember, sprinkled in like pepper for “seasoning”. Unimportant things are mentioned and given lots of screen time, but important things are left out altogether.
“Jindabyne” does have a haunting, eerie feel and look, but despite the great performances I really can’t recommend it. It just gets too bogged down in its own untold stories when it should have been focusing on the important one: the murder and its aftermath.
- Paleo Retiree on the works and mystique of Raymond Carver.