Although the odor of buried sin and some vast, encroaching punishment hangs over most every frame of Jindabyne, this is hardly a religious film in the traditional manner. After a disturbing crime, church and an old family Christian tradition hold no succor. There seems to be only the wild vastness of Australia's New South Wales, a landscape more comfortable with the rawer, less enfeebled spirituality of the few, benighted aborigines still living in the area. Given the ardor with which some of the characters pursue a form of redemption, one can only hope that there's a god of sorts out there in the land's soaring endlessness paying attention -- and maybe even granting absolution.
Intelligently adapted by screenwriter Beatrix Christian from Raymond Carver's short story "So Much Water So Close to Home," Jindabyne is about the things people do to remember that they're alive, and the things they want to forget that make them feel dead. Set in the titular small village (a sign on the road identifies it as "a tidy town") Laura Linney
and Gabriel Byrne
play Claire and Stewart Kane, a couple with troubles surrounded by friends and coworkers with plenty of their own. Everyone works the small-time kind of jobs you can find in a town the size of Jindabyne, Claire clerking at a drugstore and Stewart (a former auto racing star) running a gas station. There's darkness in the Kanes' past, like the year and a half when Claire lived elsewhere after the birth of their son Tom (played with heartbreaking sincerity by Sean Rees-Wemyss), never explained. A couple they're friends with has troubles, too: a dead daughter and now the unexpected stewardship of their goddaughter, Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazzaro), a haunted and troublemaking 10-year-old who seems to have a death wish. Article continues below
The crux of the whole year, at least for Stewart and his three mates, is the annual fishing trip they take at a river deep in a remote national park. After much fanfare they set off, only to discover on their arrival the floating body of a young aborigine woman whom the film showed in the opening scenes being menaced by a man in a truck. We are shown hardly any of the immediate response, but the group decides ultimately to tie the body down so it doesn't float away and keep fishing, only calling the police days later once they're out of the river valley. Once back, it quickly becomes clear what the men have done, and their seeming callousness makes for a media frenzy as the town, and their families, turn against them.
While the men rush to act as though everything is normal, guilt throbbing in the air, Claire can't stop worrying over the matter, returning again and again to what happened. It's in Claire's attempt to come to grips with the matter, to find out whether she's living with a heartless man and to locate some way of making amends for the event, that the film's soul is located. Director Ray Lawrence
(Lantana) smartly left this part of the film in Linney's very capable hands, as she becomes the stark and unforgiving center of this multilayered morality tale where (in true Carver fashion) what's unsaid and unseen is ultimately more important than that which we know and see. The remainder of the cast, mostly veterans of Australian stage and screen, acquit themselves well while navigating some very difficult and subtle material, with only Byrne occasionally falling prey to melodramatic overkill.
Carver's ominous conceit -- handled with remarkably less humanity as one of the many of his stories tossed into Altman's Short Cuts -- hangs like a dark scrap of evil at the heart of everything Stewart and his mates refuse for so long to say: being out there in the wild with that body, fishing in glorious weather, makes them feel astonishingly alive. Given the elemental force with which the film so vividly captures the overwhelming scale of the area's wilderness (soaring peaks, sweeping plains, and placid lakes), it's easy to buy the idea that this was some sort of primal, pre-religious sacrifice to these men -- the sort of feeling that would not have been replicated had they been, say, fishing off the Santa Monica Pier. It's a powerful, unsettling sensation and a hard one to shake, for both the characters and audience alike.