"Jindabyne" is an Australian film that's based on a short story by American writer Raymond Carver. In Carver's story, "So Much Water So Close to Home," a group of men plan and look forward to their annual fishing trip together. But shortly after they arrive at the campsite, they find the naked, dead body of a young woman. Here's their dilemma: Do they bring the body in or call police right away, and forego that much-anticipated fishing and camping trip, OR do they go ahead and fish and then report the body? In Carver's Pacific Northwest, it wasn't much of a decision. She's dead and she's not going to be improving any time soon, so what's the harm in waiting a few days?
Well, the harm comes when they return home and the story hits the news. When it comes out that the men tied the body to branches so it wouldn't drift away and then continued fishing as if nothing happened, the wife of the main character comes unglued. "How could you?" she wants to know. As she tries to grapple with what her husband and his friends did, eventually she finds herself pulling away from him and driven to pay her respects to a young woman she never knew, as a kind of family apology and personal obligation.
In Ray Lawrence's version, a number of things have been added to fill out a 123-minute film. "Jindabyne," before we get too far, is the name of a town in the southeastern corner of New South Wales, and Lawrence filmed in and around the real town. Unlike Carver's story, which never gets into the issue of where the body came from, this film opens with a young woman driving on an isolated road and flagged over by a bearded fellow. Don't do it, you're thinking. But of course she does, and we later see the man dumping her half-nude body into the lake that drains into the river the men fish. The film jumps around more than Carver's short story, and more, even, than Robert Altman's take on it in "Short Cuts." Some will find the aggregate of sub-plots a fine addition, but I personally felt that it watered down the main story and made it feel less about the men's moral decision and the effect it had on their relationships and more about what living in isolation in hill-country can do to people. And other things.
Claire Kane (Laura Linney), for example, suffered what was apparently an enormous bout of post-partum disease and left her husband and child for a year and a half. Now she thinks she might be pregnant again, and talks with the druggist in ways that suggest she's thinking of aborting the child. "Look what happened last time?" she says. He, meanwhile, has creepy echoes of the murderer, as if to suggest that there are degrees of aberrant behavior in this tiny little town. But when you add two children-Laura's son (Sean Rees-Wemyss) and an older girl playmate (Caylin-Calandria), it's almost too much. I mean, these prepubescent kids bring knives and drugs to school in order to torture and kill the class pet (a guinea pig), and then we see them later after they've killed a bird. Then, just when you're about to think that this is a film about the relationship between the desolate land and an inner landscape that's equally denuded, along comes elements of race. It turns out that the dead woman was aboriginal, and the men are suddenly accused of hate crimes and the victims of retaliatory hate crimes. Oh, yeah, and there's also a subplot about the boy's fear of water, with at least one close call.
There are so many emotionally-charged but competing subplots that you begin to wonder how it all fits together. I'm not sure that it does, and I'm not even sure that writer Beatrix Christian knows. That's not even acknowledging milder subplots like Claire's intrusive mother-in-law, the inclusion of one man's girlfriend into the group of women who have obviously been tight with each other for some time, an ex-wife that's floating around, or the youngest of the men's mutually doting relationship with a woman the men think used to be a lesbian (I'm not kidding). And it's not considering the deeper (pun-intended) symbolism of that the lake which feeds the river having been man-made, and covering an old town--shades of "Deliverance." The result is less provocative than it is unfocused and unresolved.
The cinematography and performances, though--especially at the top of the marquee--are wonderful. Linney makes you believe her character is so complex she's either ready to crack again or heal, while Gabriel Byrne is just as solid as Stewart, her husband and the apparent "leader" of his group of friends. Even the youngsters are convincing, though their storyline seems to come more from the pen of Stephen King than Raymond Carver. And surprisingly, since Carver was a master of dialogue, the men do very little talking to each other. There are a lot of scenes where all we hear is Paul Kelly's eerie music, which he says on a bonus feature was inspired by a Carver story.
Whether it comes together or not will be a matter of opinion. The scenes involving the men fishing are actually among the weakest, and their reaction to the dead body is so much more emotional than it was in Carver's story . . . which makes their decision to fish all the more incredible. That plot inconsistency plus a few sideplots (the psycho kids and racism) that go a little off the deep end keep this film from being great. It's engaging, but not as much as it could have been with less distraction.
Mastered in High Definition, "Jindabyne" looks really good for a lower-budget film. It's presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the colors are brilliant at times, dusky other times, with decent black levels and detail.
The audio is also pretty decent, with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that makes full use of all the speakers and has a natural-sounding spread across the center and front main speakers. Bass/treble balance is also good, and it was recorded on a high-enough volume so that there's not much in the way of distortion.
The only extras are a brief-but-excellent making-of feature that shows behind-the-scenes glimpses of the real town and locations and incorporates talking-heads interviews. But the deleted scenes aren't much to crow about--just three short ones that don't add much insight to what we already have.
Raymond Carver's story was about value judgments and priorities, and when "Jindabyne" explores similar moral dilemmas it's successful. But when it veers off into subplots that offer psychotic children and racial incidents, you get the feeling that the filmmakers may have caught more fish than they could fry.