Apr 25, 2007

On Jindabyne

Generously fleshed out from Raymond Carver’s story “So Much Water So Close to Home”, which also served as fodder for one of the tales in Robert Altman’s sprawling, Carver “inspired” Short Cuts, Jindabyne, an extraordinary new drama from Ray Lawrence, is the first film to do justice to the late Mr. Carver’s sublime prose.

Not that the late Mr. Altman’s film is lacking. It is quite an achievement, but its joys are found more in the tension that derives between Altman’s operatic style, his cynical yet humanistic sensibility and the spare, grave irony of Carver’s creations than with seeing Carver’s obsessions and prose style find its cinematic equivalent. The much awaited follow-up to Mr. Lawrence’s sterling second feature Lantana, his new picture only builds on the deft touch with actors and the mannered, long take style that distinguished his 2001 effort and seem perfectly tailored to bring Carver's oeuvre to life.

Both of Mr. Lawrence’s recent films have the structural mechanics of a mystery thriller and revolve around the untimely death of a beautiful woman. The film opens with a disturbing pre-credit sequence in which an attractive Aborigine girl (Tatea Reilly) is aggressively signaled to pull over by a tailgating truck driver. We immediately sense his frightening intensity as he tells her repeatedly from his window that something is trapped beneath her vehicle before swerving in front of her and attempting unsuccessfully (at first) to enter her car. Mr. Lawrence spares us the murder itself, confirming our suspicions after establishing his film’s central characters.

The director and his screenwriter Beatrix Christian are not interested in the traditional narrative pleasures of the suspense genre or the policier. Taking Carver’s story of a woman appalled to find that her husband, while beginning a fishing expedition with friends, discovered the dead woman’s body in a river and neglected to report it until the end of the weekend, prioritizing their leisure time while pragmatically preserving her body in the cold water, Lawrence weaves a marvelous ensemble tale of simmering racial inequality, faltering marriages, wounded children and the inability to transcend the tragedies of the past. By moving the story from the Pacific Northwest to the Australian mountain town of Jindabyne, which in its rustic offseason (it is a fairly popular ski town during the winter) serves as a marvelous geographic rejoinder to Carver’s setting, Mr. Lawrence integrates the dilemma of responsibility that is the heart of the narrative with the troubles of segregation and cultural misunderstanding that ensue along the white Aussie/Aborigine divide.

Claire (Laura Linney) works as a runner at a local pharmacy. She has settled into the rhythms of married life more or less comfortably with Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), an Irishman, once a small time race-car driver, now a gas station owner who fancies the small pleasures of fishing, beer and masculine camaraderie. Theirs is a life not of quiet desperation, but of unspoken wounds. Claire suffered from severe post-partum depression and disappeared for eighteen months following the birth of their son. As we settle into their lives, we nonchalantly observe the unease just below the surface of their ostensibly happy marriage and that of their friends Jude (Deborra-Lee Furness) and Carl (John Howard), who care for their emotionally disturbed granddaughter Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazzaro) after the death of their daughter, whose ex-fiancee Rocco (Stelios Yakimis) is involved with Tom and Caylin’s school teacher Carmel (Leah Purcell), who is part Aborigine. Stewart’s mother Vanessa (Betty Lucas) meddles in their barely disconnection, bitter about the failure of Stewart’s previous marriage and suspicious of Claire mental health. The three men and Stewart’s employee Billy (Simon Stone) venture out for a weekend escape, only to uncover the mountain’s terrifying secret.

A malaise ensues. This is where the movie really takes off. Lawrence and his DP David Williamson expertly depict the moral ambiguity of the men’s ability to mutually push on with their fishing exploits and to honestly enjoy the outing despite the context of their actions. We sense their joy, the escape from mundane, isolated lives that the fishing trip embodies, even while vague intimations of contempt are planted within us. Upon their return, the community is outraged, the Aborigine family of the dead woman wonders if the men would have treated a white woman with a similar carelessness and Claire, desperate for some sort of transcendence and hiding a building, undiagnosed sickness within her, naively attempts to exorcise her husband’s indiscretion by raising money for the woman’s burial, despite the distinctively structured burial customs of the Aborigines, who have no interest in her help, guilt or pity.

Instead of placing his interest in the pursuit of the killer, Mr. Lawrence’s narrative moves toward a mutual reckoning by Stewart and his friends, and by extension their entire, largely segregated community, of their culpability in loss of this woman’s dignity, if not her life, and of an open recognition of the wounds and dissatisfactions which Claire and Stewart are hiding from each other. Shooting in largely natural light amidst these lush mountain locations, the entire film has an unadorned beauty reminiscent of the cinema’s premier landscape fetishist, Michelangelo Antonioni. In his legendary ennui trilogy, Mr. Antonioni was able to elegantly tear open the locked doors within a couple’s delicate interpersonal networks of give and take, of the social balance they strike within a larger community, as Mr. Lawrence has done with such skill and poise among working class types here.

Linney and Byrne, last seen together in Dylan Kidd’s underwhelming P.S., are so wonderful together here, the emotional space this couple inhabits feeling never less than fully realized. Mr. Lawrence, as Mr. Carver did, believes that these characters are good, if flawed people whose seemingly mundane lives are swallowed, if not completely, by unspeakable tragedy, but who are capable of mutual growth. Never once dipping into the melodrama such material could lend itself to, Lawrence deserves the status as a major international auteur that this the grand picture surely confirms. The empathetic scrutiny that Jindabyne provides this community has a chilling power, one that even our scarcely seen villain can’t help but be shaken by, as the film’s masterfully understated final shot suggests.