Four men head down a hill toward a glistening river in anticipation of glorious fishing in a remote secret spot. "No women allowed!" one of them yells in a burst of over-exuberant male bonding, and no one disagrees. What none of these men know, however, is that a woman is already there, and her presence will change their lives forever.
"Jindabyne," a serious and somber film from Australia starring Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne, is as slow getting started as a leisurely weekend fishing trip, but it ends up having an almost unbearable impact. Nominated for nine Australian Film Institute awards, including best picture, "Jindabyne's" strength and power come from a number of factors: its origin, its current landscape and the unusual way its writer-director, Ray Lawrence, has chosen to work.
The source material for "Jindabyne" is "So Much Water So Close to Home," the same Raymond Carver short story about a group of men and a body they find on a fishing trip that played a part in Robert Altman's 1993 portmanteau Carver film, "Short Cuts."
Playwright and screenwriter Beatrix Christian has taken this brief story and gracefully expanded it to feature length by grasping its potential as a way to examine cultures as well as sexes in conflict, to deal with issues like the possibility of redemption and what it is we owe to the living as well as the dead.
While Carver's story is set in the Pacific Northwest and the Altman work in Los Angeles, "Jindabyne" takes place in the town in Southeast Australia that gives the film its name. Cinematographer David Williamson has provided "Jindabyne" with an intense sense of place, showcasing the overwhelming vastness of a bleak landscape that seems to lead (aided by Paul Kelly's moody score) to a bleakness of the soul.
Williamson's job is especially difficult because director Lawrence, whose previous films include "Bliss" and "Lantana" (which won seven AFI awards), works in a very specific and unusually effective way.
Not only does Lawrence shoot in natural light (except for night sequences), he almost invariably goes with only one take every time. "I want the words to sound like they've just fallen out of their mouths" is the director's explanation, and as a result dialogue and situations have an urgency and emotional reality that can be lacking in more conventionally shot films.
Not all actors are comfortable with this system, but Byrne as Irish-born family man Stewart and Linney (who had a similar experience on Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River") as his American wife, Claire, have made it their own. They give deeply felt, at times lacerating performances as one of several Jindabyne couples whose lives of quiet desperation are about to get a whole lot louder.
After a disturbing prologue, "Jindabyne" takes its time introducing its people and its world in happier times. Stewart, who runs a gas station, and Claire, who works in a pharmacy, seem happy to be married and are clearly loving parents to their young son Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss).
Stewart's three friends, the people he goes fishing with, are, in Carver's words, "decent men, family men, responsible at their jobs." These include:
Billy (Simon Stone), a sweetheart of a young guy who works as Stewart's right hand at the gas station;
Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis), a large, powerful man who is going out with Carmel (Leah Purcell), the local teacher who is part of the Aboriginal community;
Carl (John Howard), a rough-edged, hard-drinking individual who, along with wife Jude (a terrific Deborra-lee Furness), have custody of granddaughter Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazzaro), a young girl still haunted by the death of her mother.
When these four men arrive at their long-anticipated fishing spot, they are deeply shocked to find, dead in the water, the naked body of a young Aboriginal woman. They consider going back immediately and notifying the authorities, but for a variety of reasons, including the atavistic lure of the wilderness experience that the film beautifully illustrates, they decide against it and instead tie the floating corpse to a tree and go on with their fishing.
Their rationalizations, however, cease to seem sound when they return to Jindabyne, notify the authorities, and are met by a wave of anger and told in no uncertain terms by the local police that "we don't step over bodies to enjoy our leisure activities."
Revealing how this unintended furor plays out in the lives of its characters is the main business of "Jindabyne." As befits a town whose old section disappeared under water years before when a major dam was built, this is a community characterized by barely buried resentments and the hidden ways its citizens are haunted by their pasts.
With the recovered body as the catalyst, what has been papered over explodes onto the surface with devastating results. Slowly, painfully, the different agendas of husbands and wives, men and women, white and Aboriginal communities vividly reveal themselves. It is here that "Jindabyne's" unhurried pacing and Lawrence's singular technique really pay off. We live on the fault line along with these characters, and it is an experience that is not easy to shake off.
"Jindabyne." MPAA rating: R for disturbing images, language and some nudity. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes. In selected theaters.