The recent Australian film Jindabyne is based on American writer Raymond Carver’s short story “So Much Water So Close to Home,” one of the nine Carver stories used in Robert Altman’s brilliant Short Cuts. Director Ray Lawrence, who previously helmed Lantana, and first-time screenwriter Beatrix Christian have taken Carver’s Pacific Northwest milieu and transformed the setting to the small Australia town of Jindabyne. They’ve also expanded on Carver’s story to fill up two hours worth of film, an obvious contrast to Altman’s decision to only use portions of the material. Essentially, the makers of Jindabyne have opened themselves up not only to comparisons of the short story, but also to Altman’s take as well. That leaves all those people who fuss that films and source material should function separately from one another and be judged accordingly, myself included, on the outside looking in. Regrettably, Jindabyne disappoints on all fronts.
The main element of Carver’s story, the part shared by Jindabyne and Short Cuts, concerns a group of men, including Stewart Kane (an Irish mechanic and former race car driver here, played by Irish actor Gabriel Byrne), who plan a much-anticipated annual fishing trip several miles from their homes. It’s a beautiful day, the men are anxious to get in the water and catch dinner, cook the fish over an open fire and sleep under the stars. Then one of them (Stewart in the movie) notices something floating in the river, a dead woman’s half-naked body. The men face a dilemma. Should they immediately turn back and report the body to the authorities, wasting their entire trip, or can they get away with just leaving the body in the river until they’ve fished a day and are ready to return home? I don’t think it’s spoiling too much for me to reveal that they selfishly choose the latter, leaving the corpse of someone whose life has already ended violently to languish in the cold water for several more hours.
Altman and Lawrence both use this portion of the story as a segue to Stewart’s fragile state of marriage. The character comes home late at night and, without telling her about the body, initiates intimacy with his wife Claire (played here by Laura Linney, who conveniently keeps her American accent). When Claire finds out the next morning, before Stewart’s had another chance to tell her himself, she becomes upset and their already wobbly union appears to grow even shakier. At the risk of needlessly comparing the two film versions of Carver’s story, it’s interesting that Jindabyne spends really no more time with Stewart and his fishing buddies in their very brief ethical quandary than Short Cuts had. What would appear to be a vital part of narrative drama and a difficult decision for the characters is basically glossed over in favour of long shots of fish, including one gasping for the same air taken away from the dead woman who now occupies the water vital for the fish to live.
I think that’s the point though. The men don’t really think their choice to continue fishing is a terribly tough one or that they’re doing anything horrifying by letting the corpse soak in the river. When they do return, their small community disagrees. The dead woman was a young Aboriginal girl and the already divided area, where the Aborigines seem to have a strong distrust of the white majority, is rocked with outrage and cries of racism. The Kanes’ home life suffers tremendously as well. Marital struggles that have been brewing for years come back to the front and everyone must deal with the tension that’s become prevalent throughout Jindabyne. By only briefly showing the friends’ discussion about what to do, I think Lawrence’s film is intentionally avoiding any urge to judge whether the men should have made a different choice. It instead seems more focused on the repercussions of the decision.
For Claire, this latest misstep from Stewart, which might be his failure to tell her about the body more than his failure to report the body sooner, puts her near the boiling point. The audience is given pieces of the Kanes’ struggles, including Claire’s 18-month absence following the birth of their son, but any attempts to understand their actions or motivations can be nearly impossible. The minimalism so beautifully used in Carver’s story collapses under the weight of a feature-length film. Jindabyne’s biggest flaw is that it tries to take small crumbs of characters’ pasts, ones that work in Carver’s text, and expand them into three-dimensional movie characters. This doesn’t work because once Claire and Stewart leave the world Carver created on the page, they become products of Beatrix Christian’s script and these new details we’re given about the characters pull back the curtain too much for minimalism to work and too little for a film audience to sympathize or care. The balance achieved in the short story (and Altman’s even-shorter use of the characters) is disrupted.
From there, the additions in the script feel awkward and quizzical. The Aboriginal angle is interesting to a point, but never really seems to coalesce - though I could see how it might prove more stimulating for persons from Australia. Simultaneously it feels like too much is going on and nothing is going on. Long, lingering shots of trees, grass, and water, frequent cuts to transitional black dissolves, and other deliberate distractions from the unsatisfying narrative (admirers might use the word “meditative”) will make the film boring for some, but truthfully add little even if you enjoy seeing blue skies more than car chases. It feels like the filmmakers have some message they desperately want to convey, but either don’t know what it is or don’t know how to do so. I admire the nontraditional look at a senseless murder, where we know who the killer is even though we don’t see it happen and the police investigation is almost completely absent on the screen, but there needs to be more focus. Or less, perhaps.
There’s so much implied beneath the surface of what we see in Jindabyne that the film begins to take on a spiritual effect it’s neither earned nor knows how to sustain. Watching this and Ray Lawrence’s previous film Lantana, a more successful exploration of many of the same restrained themes, confirms that the director has a desire to tell a certain kind of story, but I don’t think it’s fully realized in Jindabyne. The film is too murky and layered too thinly for the audience to take that leap of faith and connect with what’s on the screen. It’s also a bit strange to see a film that feels distinctly Australian and attempts to stay attuned to the almost mystical qualities of the Jindabyne area actually starring two non-Australian actors whose characters should ideally be outsiders themselves. Maybe this is intentional, a companion to the idea that only the Aborigines are truly native to the area, but it feels underdeveloped.
The Jindabyne R2 DVD released by Revolver looks reasonably strong imagewise, preserving the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and presented in anamorphic widescreen. Colors and detail are fairly sharp, though far from spectacular, and the Australian outdoors looks wonderfully majestic. Black levels are sufficiently dark, if a little flat. The film was shot using mostly natural lighting and it shows in the grainy darkness of several scenes. Still, the overall transfer quality is more than satisfactory and free from any noticeable defects. Nothing looks especially outstanding in comparison to other new releases, but the image is clean overall.
Audio is presented in both 2.0 Dolby Digital and a 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track. Aside from Paul Kelly’s score, there’s little use made of the rear speakers, with the exception of a roaring truck here and there. The 5.1 track is preferred, but both sound clear. (Interestingly, Kelly has a song, “Everything’s Turning to White,” from his 1989 album of the same name that’s also inspired by Raymond Carver’s short story.) A lack of English subtitles is quite disappointing and caused me to rewind whispered conversations more than once. I do wish some of the dialogue had been slightly more consistent with the rest of the sound level. The Australian accents aren’t particularly heavy, but can still be difficult to understand when spoken with hushed voices.
Extra features are fairly light, with only three deleted scenes, the theatrical trailer and a half hour making-of featurette. These are also included on the already released R4 edition, as well as the upcoming R1 DVD. Hopefully exclusive to the R2 is an unrelated commercial advertisement that plays automatically when the disc is inserted, a practice I find ridiculous and a bit disturbing. Trailers for Tell No One and the documentary Taking Liberties also play automatically, without the option to skip ahead and are not accessible from the menu.
Regarding the supplements, the deleted scenes are not viewable separately and run a little over 6 minutes total, enhanced in anamorphic widescreen. Those interested in watching the Jindabyne trailer might want to do so after seeing the film, as it's misleading and tries to make the movie seem much more exciting than it is. Finally, “Jindabyne - The Process” runs 30 minutes and is an informative look at director Ray Lawrence and the film's shoot. It features interviews with all the major principals of the picture and is recommended regardless of how much enjoyment the viewer derives from the feature. I personally gained some understanding into what was going on behind the scenes and, in the process, further confirmed some of the problems I had with the film.