Hinging on a naturally dramatic situation involving four men on a fishing holiday who find a corpse in a river, "Jindabyne" never obtains the full impact of its potentially powerful inner core. The emotionally scabrous lead perfs by Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne, however, provide genuine substance for director Ray Lawrence's third film and should ensure modest aud attraction.
Lawrence's film ranks several notches below his more realized "Lantana," but shows the director working at a more active pace, with only five years separating these two pics following the 16-year wait after his 1985 debut, "Bliss."
As in "Lantana," the adult characters of "Jindabyne" must contend with sudden moral choices, while also keeping their family units together. But, underdeveloped characters, scenes and sequences plus vague and unsatisfying hints at mystical socio-political themes and a sluggish pace, keep pic from reaching its high ambitions.
Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian have adapted Raymond Carver's bracing short story, "So Much Water So Close to Home" in a distinctly Australian context, locating events in the mountainous southwest region surrounding the town of Jindabyne ("valley" in the Aboriginal tongue).
Thriller tone is quickly established, as Gregory (Chris Haywood), an old man resembling a New England whaler and with a thousand-yard stare, docks his truck in a hideout to scope out women driving alone. His prey is a 19-year-old Aboriginal woman named Susan (Tatea Reilly). Later, auds see Gregory dump her pallid corpse being dumped in a river feeding the local reservoir, which covers over the land that was the site of the former town of Jindabyne.
Even before characters are firmly established, Lawrence imposes a portentous mood over the environs. Against these darker atmospherics is the solidly working-class home of gas station owner Stewart (Byrne), wife Claire (Linney) and their young son Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss). Tom, under the sway of his friend Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazzaro), gets grounded when caught for having killed a rodent at school.
Leaving his wife to punish Tom, Stewart goes off on a weekend fishing trip with pals Carl (John Howard) and Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis), plus Billy (Simon Stone), a gangly naif who works at the gas station.
Redolent with "Deliverance's" brand of adventurous danger, the men's trek to their fishing hole is apparently spied upon by unseen eyes. At the 38-minute mark, Stewart discovers Susan's body, at which point Carver's story takes full effect.
The way Lawrence captures the dynamic of the group decision to not immediately report the body to authorities, and instead go on fishing, is possibly the film's most thoroughly convincing passage.
The wordless act of tying Susan's leg to a rock by fishing wire -- ironically out of supposed kindness so she's not dashed on the downstream rocks -- says everything about the morally tendentious position the men have placed themselves in.
What follows, however, is quite flat-footed, despite the refreshing and surprising dramatic choice to shift the story to Claire. It's her desire to understand what really went on at the river that generates the only interesting dramatic content in pic's second half.
A tell-tale sign that "Jindabyne" is clogged with too many unrealized concerns is the botched look at racial hatred in the burg.
Pic is finally burdened with far too much incidents and themes for it to do justice to any of them individually. The story surrounding Caylin's mom-by-adoption Jude (a strong, spiky Deborra-lee Furness), an emotionally fractured woman who alone, deserves its own movie.
Weighting pic down further is a constant pattern of fade-outs and fade-ins that slow matters to a crawl when a sharper pace is clearly called for. Linney and Byrne, though, do all they can to recharge the film at every juncture. Linney's portrait of the wife keeps pic focused on the central plot. Byrne's Stewart is an interesting case study of a man who is, as Claire succinctly terms it, "piss weak."
Even though this same Carver story was used as a fragment in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" (with Fred Ward, Buck Henry and Huey Lewis as the fishing buddies), the same moral themes in that far briefer version came across more effectively than in this diffused adaptation.
In true Australian cinema tradition, landscape is character in "Jindabyne," though the combined contributions of lenser David Williamson, composers Paul Kelly and Dan Lunscombe, sound man Andrew Plain and editor Karl Sodersten are somewhat short of great Oz mood-setters, including "Lantana" itself and current Cannes contender, Rolf de Heer's "Ten Canoes."
Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), David Williamson; editor, Karl Sodersten; music, Paul Kelly, Dan Luncombe; production designer, Margot Wilson; costume designer, Wilson; sound (Dolby Digital), Peter Grace; supervising sound editor, Andrew Plain; sound designer, Plain; casting, Susie Maizels. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 23, 2006. Running time: 123 MIN.
With: Chris Haywood, Tatea Reilly.