Jindabyne

dir: Ray Lawrence
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My biggest fear regarding this flick was that it would scale the heights of cinematic tedium first Sir Edmund Hillary-ied by Ray Lawrence’s previous film Lantana. It’s a serious concern. You have no idea how dull I found Lantana, and how much I dread his fucking films.

But Jindabyne came along, with a suitcase and a song, and I put aside my prejudices, impressed by the moody trailers and good press, and the fact it had Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney in it.

I’d also heard that it was based on a Raymond Carver short story, about the only Carver short story I’m familiar with: So Much Water, So Close to Home. Anyone who’s seen (and remembers) the Robert Altman film Short Cuts might recall it too. One of the parts of that interlocking sequence of stories concerned a bunch of morons who go on a fishing trip, find a dead girl’s body, and choose not to report it for a while so that they don’t have to spoil their fishing trip.

That decision has implications down the track for the people involved, and especially for the wife of one of the men. But it only constitutes a minor part in the film’s grand scheme of things. The point of Altman’s film was that all these different residents of Los Angeles were all connected in different ways by different events. The point of Lawrence’s film is significantly different.

I guess. I mean I could be completely wrong. It could have been about how terrible the affliction of haemorrhoids is on a person and those around them. Or about what a wonderful Prime Minister John Howard has been for this wide, brown land of ours for over a decade.

In Jindabyne, the essence of the story is transposed to a town in the NSW Snowy Mountains. But, curiouser and curiouser, despite the transplantation of setting, the lead characters are played by an American and an Irishman, surrounded by a sea of Australians.

I’m not complaining though, because both Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne are wonderful actors and do most excellent work here.

They play a married couple, Stewart and Claire, who’ve been living in the town for a fair while. Stewart is an ex-rally car driver who runs the local garage. Claire, brittle and angular, works at the chemist. They have a tiny little son, who seems too fragile for this world.

Stewart and a few of his mates go on a fishing trip over the mountains to a fairly isolated area in order to fly fish for trout. Whilst there, Stewart finds a dead girl’s body. We know how the body got there, but they don’t.

What happens next is the crux of the film, but everything that follows occurs because of who the characters are. The film goes to extreme lengths to make its characters three-dimensional so that what happens makes a kind of emotional sense.

And that which follows doesn’t really constitute a plot per se. The girl’s dead, and the townsfolk view the men harshly, who each deal with the situation differently. The girl’s extended family also tend to view the men in a less than glowing light.

Questions arise as to the men’s motives. Questions are raised about a lot of things. Some of them are answered, some are not. We are the ones expected to do a lot of the heavy lifting, because we are given hints and impressions of the inner worlds of our characters, and rarely does any revelation come to us in an unambiguous fashion. There are plenty of things we never get to find out, and it’s debatable whether that’s a good thing or not, but at the very least, you can’t accuse the director of spoon-feeding his audience.

Ray Lawrence, for all that I might ridicule him for, is an extremely competent director, and he allows for a greater level of subtlety than many other directors I can think of working with material of a similar nature.

Two elements that stood out for me was the repetition of imagery in two different scenes, which doesn’t draw too much attention to itself and is not done for the sake of being showy. In one, a parallel is drawn from Stewart’s finding of the body, and a scene further on with his wife, the other parallels the way in which he hurriedly performs the sign of the cross.

There’s a whole bunch of roles for Aussie actors, all of whom get pithy dialogue when it’s required of them. Chris Haywood, Deborah Lee Furness, Leah Purcell, Alice Garner; even John Howard is in the film. Alas, it’s not the Great Helmsman who valiantly leads our country kicking and screaming back into the 19th century, but the paunchy, belligerent actor from television shows like All Saints and Sea Change.

And he’s good at what he does, as the paunchy, belligerent and sullen Carl, as is everyone else in the flick. Whilst the acting is top notch, there are maybe a handful of scenes that probably should have been re-shot (seeing as how awkward they turned out), but I’m guessing Lawrence elected to keep them to preserve the flick’s naturalistic feel.

And it feels pretty natural, organic even. Nothing (except maybe the ending) seems forced or contrived. To speak in a very broad, generalised sense, I don’t think Australians see themselves as possessing a culture that greets tragic circumstances with a lot of hand-holding, group therapy sessions and everyone getting their kumbaya-yas out. The flick tries to give a very Australian take on the story, and I think it succeeds, mostly. Using an American to play Claire’s role, perversely, works for exactly that reason, but I’ll leave it to viewers to see why.

Her path is almost more difficult than anyone else’s in the flick, as she struggles to deal with what this situation says about her emotionally closed-off husband and herself. Making her more sympathetic would have unbalanced the flick, because we’re not supposed to be dividing these characters into heroes and villains (except for one of the characters, who seems like more of a force of nature; like an Angel of Death or a Human Resources Manager). But she was good.

Gabriel Byrne’s even better, and it comes as a bit of a surprise to me. I’ve forgotten how good he could be, and everything he does here, from the scene where he notices his greying hair in the mirror, to finding the girl, to having a violent domestic with his wife, all comes through well.

I mentioned earlier that I had an idea what the flick was about, but that I wasn’t sure. Well, I like to think about films, and research / talk about them with others, and I sometimes scour the net or newspapers for interviews with a few people whose opinions and thoughts I’m actually interested in. But not in all circumstances.

The film could be about how people deal with guilt, the fragility of life, moral responsibility, selfishness, isolation, tension between ‘white’ Australia and indigenous Australia, and the sham that is marriage. It could be about all these elements and more. Whatever it is, the flick has the decency to not bang us over the head with it.

The nature of the town itself is meant to play a factor as well. Jindabyne was ‘recreated’ after the Snowy Mountain Scheme flooded the old town. There it lies, beneath the surface, all dark and mysterious. The current Jindabyne is an echo, a mirror of its submerged self that still dwells underneath everything. Don’t you get it, everything’s below the surface? I guess it’s not as subtle as I thought…

For a film that’s a dramatic piece, and not a whodunit, the uneasy feeling it creates and sustains is quite palpable and surprising. Lawrence handles much of the tone quite deftly, but I thought having some woman wailing on the soundtrack at certain points in a way that would scare Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance fame, was tacky and didn’t sit well with me or the flick.

There are other elements that don’t sit well with me either, including the ending, which seems to come from a different film, and some of the behaviour of the townspeople. But overall I’d say that the flick hangs together well. As to whether it’s entertaining or not, well, take this little test and see for yourselves.

Take out your wallet, or whatever you call the item where you keep money, cards and forms of ID. For some of you, that’ll be a wallet. For some, it’ll be a sporran. For others, it’ll be a hessian sack covered with blood. Take out a card or a form of ID exhibiting your date of birth on it. For some of you, that’ll be your driver’s licence. For others, it’ll be your Sex Offenders Registry card. Subtract the year of your birth from the current year. If that number is small (i.e. less than 40), you’ve got bugger all chance of enjoying a film as slow and ambiguous as this.

If your biological or mental age (as in, are you more and more tempted to vote for a conservative party at the next election, and do you find the existence of teenagers worrisome and troubling?) exceeds that, then this is right up your alley. Because that’s who Ray Lawrence makes his films for: mature, intelligent people with a high-boredom threshold who like stories about middleclass, middle-aged people whose marriages are in trouble. You know, like themselves.

Jindabyne is more than that, and deserves to be seen. Just don’t be expecting It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It takes its time getting where it wants to go (which is nowhere), so the impatient or those hoping for a plot need not apply.

7 dead Andrews floating, naked, pale, lost, tethered by their ankles to fallen tree branches with lengths of fishing line out of 10

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“How did it feel? It felt great!” – Stewart, Jindabyne.

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