Film-Forward Review: [JINDABYNE]

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Laura Linney as Claire
Photo: Matt Nettheim/Sony Pictures Classics

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Directed by: Ray Lawrence.
Written by: Beatrix Christian, from a story by Raymond Carver.
Produced by: Catherine Jarman.
Director of Photography: David Williamson.
Edited by: Karl Soderstein.
Music by: Paul Kelly & Dan Luscombe featuring Soteria Bell.
Country of Origin: Australia. 123 min. Rated R.
Released by: Sony Pictures Classics.
With: Laura Linney, Gabriel Byrne, Deborra-lee Furness, John Howard, Leah Purcell, Stelios Yiakmis, Alice Garner, Simon Stone, Betty Lucas, Chris Haywood, Eva Lazzaro, Sean Rees-Wemyss & Tatea Reilly.
DVD Features: Deleted scenes. Making-of featurette. French & Spanish subtitles.

The opening is immediately discomfiting. A woman is driving alone on an isolated road. As her car radio fades into static, she sings a romantic country ditty about the town of Jindabyne while a creepy old guy is on the look out behind an outcropping of rocks. The set-up could be fodder for a horror movie spoof. Instead, for director Ray Lawrence, using the same production team as on his equally atmospheric Lantana, an unsettling offscreen murder again becomes a means to delve deeply into relationships and grievances between men and women.

This fascinating look at moral responsibility is given universal resonance by first establishing very specific people in a very specific location in Australia’s Snowy Mountains. Gradually, the emotional landscape within each of the complicated characters is laid bare. Each person and even the town itself are haunted by history. (There are mumbled references to a past serial killer.) An old newsreel shown to bored school children reveals how the new town sits along a man-made lake that drowned the old town when a dam was built for a hydroelectric power station in the 1960’s.

Claire (Laura Linney) is still shakily recovering from a long bout with postpartum depression, watched over suspiciously by her mother-in-law Vanessa (Betty Lucas). Her husband, ex-racing car driver Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), runs the service station, surrounded by his co-worker and buddies – regular bloke Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis), stolid Carl (John Howard), and young Billy (Simon Stone), who they tease as “the Kid.” Carl’s wife Jude (played by Deborra-lee Furness, returning to her acting career with a wallop after years being more visible on the red carpet as Hugh Jackman’s wife) is an earth mother coping with raising a disturbingly bereft granddaughter, who keeps leading Claire and Stewart’s small son Tom dangerously astray. The men are all eagerly anticipating their annual fishing expedition while their women barely tolerate the male bonding.

Well capturing the vague disquiet that permeated Peter Weir’s Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, Lawrence uses the spooky score to Hitchcockian effect as the second act unfolds with plot elements of that ill-fated fishing trek, which will be familiar from one of the many storylines in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, an anthology of moral malaise in Los Angeles. Both films have adapted Raymond Carver’s story “So Much Water So Close to Home,” a phrase also repeated in the story/song “Everything’s Turning to White” that plays over the closing credits here, penned by co-composer Paul Kelly 20 years ago, when he introduced Lawrence to Carver’s work. While Altman moved Carver’s Washington state locale to Southern California, Beatrix Christian’s adaptation utilizes more of the plot in a vivid demonstration of how the same piece of literature can resonate across the globe. The lovely cinematography (Lawrence shot one takes in natural light) emphasizes the magnificent remote high country in Kosciuszko National Park, part of what’s called Australia’s Alps, although this is a much darker take on the pure catharsis of fly-fishing than in A River Runs Through It.

Going beyond the male/female conflict in the original story, the victim from the opening scene is of aboriginal heritage, as is Rocco’s girlfriend, Carmel (Leah Purcell), adding an expanding layer of community guilt that riles the town with escalating accusations of racism. (The opening pro-forma Australian government warning to aborigines that the film may contain images of the dead that could violate their religious sensibilities takes on added significance within the plot.) Combined with their intense acting, American Linney and Irish Byrne contrast sharply with the local Aussies. They are insecure blow-ins, even more recent interlopers than the other whites in comparison to the resentful aborigines. Never stooping to histrionics, even in physical interactions that build from warm to taut, the duo is emotionally tortured from the inside out as they keep grappling with questions of “What if…?” and “How could you?” Each character’s – and the community’s – struggle with forgiveness realistically lacks nobility and is more about painfully lurching towards uncomfortable co-existence, even with a murderer still visibly threatening.

Though not based on any real incident, the emotionally exhausting film uses detailed artistry to illuminate the human nature behind publicized cases both from real life, such as the notorious incident of Kitty Genovese’s ignored murder, and the findings of social psychologists on how people together treat others, detailed in Alex Gibney’s documentary The Human Behavior Experiment. Though not always the case in real life, these characters here face up to living with the consequences of their actions, as the moving music continues on the soundtrack even after the credits have finished rolling.
April 27, 2007

DVD Extras: The three two-minute deleted scenes make explicit several characters’ discomfort with death. In the half-hour making-of featurette, “The Process,” the cast and crew emphasize the impact of filming only with available light, indoors and outdoors. Linney compares Lawrence’s fast shooting style to director Clint Eastwood’s, though here she had a more emotionally complex character than in her two Eastwood films. Musician Kelly is also seen singing to the cast his song that inspired Lawrence to make the film.

Several interviewees focus on the spiritual and moral aspects of the script, with the indigenous advisors explaining the importance of the closing cleansing ceremony. (The aborigine-sounding chanting throughout the film is by the world music group Soteria Bell.)

The departure from the cynicism and anomie in the Carver original story and Altman’s earlier acclaimed adaptation may explain the mixed reaction the film received from American critics. In this culturally specific interpretation, the men grapple much more with the question of “What happened out there?” than in the other versions, and all are changed by their experience, making this a more poignant and cathartic approach to the material. Nora Lee Mandel
October 2, 2007



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