Ray Lawrence’s 2001 movie Lantana – a brilliant ensemble piece dissecting emotional and sexual mores among the urban middle classes – has been called the best Australian film of the last decade. While his new work Jindabyne may not have quite the same immediate appeal, it is nonetheless a disturbingly haunting expos of the tensions and conflicts within a very different kind of community.
It is based on Raymond Carver’s closely packed short story “So Much Water So Close to Home” (which was one strand of Robert Altman’s superb multi-narrative Short Cuts), here transposed to the beautiful but remote Snowy Mountains region of south-eastern Australia.
When garage owner Stewart and three friends leave their small town of Jindabyne to go on a fishing trip in the mountains, they find floating in the river the corpse of a young Aboriginal woman, evidently murdered. But instead of immediately alerting the police they decide to wait until their fishing weekend is over. This seemingly callous misjudgement has far-reaching consequences for the men and their families, spreading further out through the community, like ripples in still water.
What Lawrence and adaptor Beatrix Christian have produced is a subtly understated examination of individual and social relationships, including married partners, parents and children, as well as class and race issues. Although there is a quasi-thriller framework to the film – we see at the start who the murderer is, and the chilling ending suggests he is a serial killer – this is not a ‘will he be caught before he can kill again?’ sort of movie. There is plenty of suspense but the emphasis is on interior, psychological drama rather than action.
The claustrophobic nature of Jindabyne’s enclosed, isolated community is beautifully captured – yes, on the surface the relaxed atmosphere of this scenic town where everyone knows each other may seem idyllic but underneath lurk uncertainty, doubt, resentment and distrust. David Williamson’s stunning cinematography avoids presenting the landscape as a tourist attraction, instead showing its wildness in an unsettling and even sinister way, while Paul Kelly and Dan Luscombe’s evocative score also touches on primal fears and anxieties.
The true relations between the characters are allowed to unfold naturally, not forced by unconvincing demands of narrative. The easy-going banter and laddish casualness of the fishing buddies gives way to guilt, shame, recrimination and violence as their friendships come under strain due to public condemnation.
The men’s relationships with their partners also suffer, especially between Stewart and his emotionally unstable wife Claire, who went AWOL after their young son was born and who is (unbeknown to Stewart) now pregnant again. His concealing from her exactly what happened alienates Claire, as she develops an obsession with the dead girl and with trying to make amends to her family, who, as Aborigines, already feel underprivileged and discriminated against.
Laura Linney gives an outstanding performance as Claire, the emotional focus of the film. While we sympathise with her disgust with her husband and her attempts at reparation, Linney makes us feel her self-centred righteousness and morbid voyeurism too. Gabriel Byrne is also excellent as Stewart, a morally lazy and weak-willed man, who wants an easy life but nevertheless loves his wife and comes to realise the error of his ways. But is it too late to repair all the damage that has been done?