Aussie filmmaker Ray Lawrence’s debt to Robert Altman in his previous Lantana is made explicit in his new film Jindabyne, which counts as its source the Raymond Carver short story that gave Short Cuts some of its most offhandedly scabrous moments. Where Altman used Carver’s So Much Water So Close to Home as one of the many strands that lent his teeming L.A. sprawl a profound multiplicity of moods, Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian expand it into a monochromatically foreboding miserabilist diagram, in the process draining the life out of it.
Carver’s story trenchantly depicts the effects of an all-male group’s refusal to let a woman’s dead body get in the way of their weekend fishing trip, though in the film’s eponymous New South Wales town the elements appear polluted even before the corpse turns up in its waters. The very air breathed by mechanic Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) and his traumatized wife Claire (Laura Linney) is so weighty with numbed portent that the scream heard when the dead girl is found dumped in the river suggests a hundred repressed tensions released at once. Rather than catharsis, however, casual callousness follows: Stewart and his buddies tether the victim to a tree and go about their fly-fishing rituals, a decision which precipitates a spiraling scandal once it is revealed.
Like Lantana, Jindabyne ponders the ways people connect or drift apart in fits of wounded emotion that break through its thriller format. Also like the earlier film, it shatters its own best effects with a lecturing tidiness that undercuts the ambiguity Lawrence strives for. When Claire’s distraught response to her husband’s action escalates into an obsessive compassion for the Aborigine victim’s family, the immediacy of her feelings—and of Linney’s fierce performance—is blunted by the way her grief has been neatly set up to underline points about racism, abortion, and spiritual regeneration. (Compare it to the moment in Short Cuts when Anne Archer’s face crumbles from within when she learns of her husband’s behavior, and you see the difference between a director laboring for grace and another catching it effortlessly as one of countless wondrous movements in life.)
Though its literary basis is American, the film belongs to a specifically Australian line of fastidiously disquieting, vaguely return-of-the-oppressed-styled parables (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave), where unspoken colonialist crimes of the past are evocatively reflected in the secrets submerged in the local river. Like Peter Weir and Fred Schepisi, Lawrence has a gift for visual metaphor, but because he uses it to studiously connect the dots instead of letting the voids speak for themselves, his languid tracks and fades to black become as oppressive as the pent-up pain carried around by the characters.