Judge Ben Saylor is at a loss when it comes to making a clever front-page blurb out of a movie with a title like Jindabyne.
Under the surface of every life lies a mystery.
Director Ray Lawrence follows up his 2001 film Lantana with Jindabyne, a film based on the Raymond Carver short story, "So Much Water So Close to Home." Unfortunately for Lawrence, this story has already been adapted in a superior fashion in Robert Altman's 1993 masterpiece Short Cuts. Despite a strong pair of lead performances, Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian overstuff the narrative with unnecessary subplots and melodrama that rob the film of much of its power.
Facts of the Case
In the Australian town of Jindabyne, gas station owner Stewart (Gabriel Byrne, Miller's Crossing) and his wife Claire (Laura Linney, The Squid and the Whale) have a strained relationship. Stewart, an ex-race car driver, is upset at the passing of his glory days, and with his graying temples. Claire is troubled with her recent discovery that she is pregnant. Stewart and his friends Carl (John Howard), Billy (Simon Stone) and Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis) set off on a fishing trip. Not long after arriving at their destination, Stewart discovers the nude corpse of an Aboriginal woman. For a variety of reasons, the group decides not to cut their trip short right away, and instead tethers the body to a tree to keep it from floating away. Upon reporting the body and returning home, they face a community outraged with their actions. Latent tensions between the men and their wives and girlfriends, especially between Stewart and Claire, as well as racial friction, come to a boil in light of the men's decision.
Raymond Carver's short story "So Much Water So Close to Home" is a quietly powerful tale with rich cinematic potential, as Robert Altman showed in Short Cuts. However, that film is three hours long, and in it, "So Much Water…" is only one part of a multi-faceted narrative. By taking just this story and adding characters and subplots, Ray Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian stretch the narrative to the breaking point.
The story survives being transplanted from America to Australia very nicely, and Lawrence and cinematographer David Williamson turn the Australian landscape into a character in and of itself. By making the discovered body that of an Aborigine, Lawrence and Christian are also able to work in racial tension; i.e., if the woman were white, would the men have continued to fish? In addition, the way the filmmakers use the incident to show the deepening schism between Stewart and Claire is very effective. If Jindabyne had confined itself to those two elements, it probably would have been a pretty good movie. Unfortunately, there's a whole lot more going on.
First of all, the film includes the woman's killer as a character. He is seen at the very beginning and very end of the film, and then sporadically in between. Unfortunately, nothing is really done with his character, and his presence in the film is completely unnecessary.
In addition, Lawrence and Christian seem to have felt that it wasn't enough for just Stewart and Claire to have troubles (as it is in the story); here, just about everybody has some kind of issue. Carl and his wife Jude (Deborra-Lee Furness) are raising their granddaughter, Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazzaro) in light of her mother's death. Rocco was engaged to Caylin-Calandria's mother. Now Rocco is dating Carmel (Leah Purcell), a schoolteacher who has Caylin-Calandria and Stewart and Claire's son Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss) in her class. Tom and Caylin-Calandria have a bizarre relationship that consists largely of killing small animals (for reasons that are never entirely explained). Not only are most of these details unnecessary (and in the case of the animal killing, inexplicable and disturbing), but they eat up huge chunks of runtime; Stewart doesn't discover the body until roughly 40 minutes into the movie. Even worse, these subplots take time away from the most interesting elements of the narrative: Stewart and Claire, and the racial conflict. Lawrence could have made a very good movie by keeping the runtime at 90-100 minutes and focusing on just those two elements. Instead, we have a film that runs nearly two hours and feels longer.
Fortunately, we never completely lose sight of Stewart and Claire. They are deeply troubled characters, and they are so before Stewart goes on the fishing trip. Wounds apparently haven't healed from when Claire left Stewart and Tom shortly after the boy's birth, and Stewart is clearly at least somewhat disappointed that he is no longer a young race car driver but instead a middle-aged gas station owner. Claire's pregnancy upsets her because of what happened when she had Tom, and she's also resentful of her meddling mother-in-law (Betty Lucas). When she learns about Stewart and his friends' thoughtless treatment of the dead woman, she falls into a state of confusion and desperation, and tries to atone for her husband's actions. Her desire to talk about the incident with the other men and their partners, and to also communicate her apologies over the incident to the woman's family, is, until the film's conclusion, met with hostility and resentment.
Both Byrne and Linney succeed brilliantly in tricky roles. Byrne infuses Stewart with a general good nature but also a rough edge that points to his deep inner turmoil, a conflict that intensifies in the wake of the incident until finally spilling over in a climactic screaming match with Claire. Byrne is excellent at showing Stewart's further withdrawal into himself after encountering the body.
Linney arguably had an even more difficult task before her with the character of Claire, who is one of the more unpleasant screen characters I've seen recently. She is tightly wound right from the start, the kind of person you have to walk on eggshells around. She is prone to snap at people and, honestly, she is so overbearing at times that I found myself sympathizing with the other characters when she constantly tried to bring up the incident, and also when she would attempt to communicate with the woman's family, at one point even using her son to help her collect money for the woman's funeral. "It's not charity," Claire insists to one of the woman's relatives. "Are you buying something then?" is the reply. Coming out of the movie, the way I saw it, Claire overreacts to what happened with well-intentioned but misguided gestures, and Stewart doesn't react enough. Linney has made a career out of playing headstrong, determined women, and in this role has succeeded where lesser actresses might have failed. It's a marvel to watch Claire try to soldier on in the face of her family's disintegration.
The transfer of Jindabyne is somewhat grainy in some scenes, and doesn't show off Williamson's beautiful cinematography the way it could have. In terms of sound, the disc is solid.
For extras, we have a trio of deleted scenes adding up to about six minutes. The only one of the three that I would have considered keeping in the film is where the four men discuss the finding of the girl as they sit around a campfire on their fishing trip. It probably wouldn't have been necessary, but it wasn't very long, and it would have been more welcome than the scenes involving Tom and Caylin-Calandria's killing of a guinea pig. There's also a making-of featurette that is hardly comprehensive (it runs just 30 minutes) but is still interesting. The featurette covers the progress of the production with behind the scenes footage and interviews from lots of cast and crew members. As on other Sony discs I've seen, there is also a large collection of trailers.
Jindabyne had the potential to be a very powerful drama had it not ventured so far beyond Carver's source material. Despite strong lead performances, the surfeit of subplots drags this movie down. Sometimes, less really is more.
Byrne and Linney are free to go, but Lawrence and Christian are admonished for padding their narrative.
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