Director: Ray Lawrence
By Roderick Heath
Ray Lawrence reappeared on the map 16 years after his cinematic debut—the unwatchable Bliss (1985)—with the much-praised drama Lantana (2001), an Altmanesque multi-strand drama following a group of mostly middle-class Sydneysiders and what happens to their psyches and relationships following a woman’s disappearance. Lantana proved that adult drama could be a box office draw here in Australia. I found the film as insufferable as a high schooler trying to act serious and troubled in order to impress chicks; brows were furrowed, moody words were uttered, intrigue was developed, dingy colours filtered every scene, and in the end, as Bob Dylan once sang, nothing was revealed. The film put on the trappings of a dramatic thriller and proved to be a shaggy dog story. L’Avventura it was not. Antonioni’s film understood the nature and power of ambiguity—the mysteries of its plot were matched by the mysteries of its characters, whereas the dramatic situations of Lantana took the psychological acumen of a Dr. Phil episode and matched it to scenes that came across precisely as what they were—acting exercises straight off the stage.
Jindabyne also pays a nod to Altman by way of being based on the same Raymond Carver short story “So Much Water So Close To Home” that Altman used as part of the texture of Short Cuts (1993). As with Lantana, Lawrence uses a genre plot to make a domestic drama. Jindabyne is a popular resort spot in the Southern Alps, the southern end of the same mountain chain, the Great Dividing Range, I live in. Jindabyne is situated above a lake formed for the huge hydroelectric scheme built in the Snowy Mountains in the 1950s. The old town lies under the lake, a detail played for maximum symbolic value, as it was in Cate Shortland’s unusually good Somersault (2004)—submerged lives, ghosts of the past, and all that jazz.
Carver’s story, cited as a masterpiece of his minimalist style, presents a wife who recounts how her husband Stuart and his friends said they had found a girl’s corpse in the Naches River whilst on a fishing vacation, tethered it for the duration, and got down to their usual business of boozing and fly-casting. The men are infamous for this, and the wife is troubled. She later encounters a man on the road who may be just a creepy letch—or the girl’s murderer. Reports come through of the killer’s arrest. The wife says to a friend, “They have friends, these killers. You can’t tell,” indicating she thinks perhaps her husband and his friends may have been involved. However, balance seems to be restored when the wife responds to a come-on from Stuart. It’s a work whose effectiveness stems from the wife’s attempt to read her husband, and men in general, comes up a total blank, female emotiveness helpless before male taciturnity. It evokes a certain type of American male who would rather be shot than use the word “feeling” in a sentence, and how ambiguous, even menacing, such a trait can be in this circumstance.
Most Aussie males are similar, so theoretically the new locale makes a good fit. But Jindabyne can’t quite do this story, nor can it do the story it has to tell. Such a story involves a rupture in the everyday fabric, but Lawrence’s film piles on portent you could cut with a knife. Like Lantana, which visually referenced an a true crime moment in a sequence involving a roadside dummy dressed like the missing woman patterned after a real-life police stunt in looking for the killers of two teens in the 1990s, Jindabyne recalls Bradley John Murdoch’s attack on Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio.The killer, played by Chris Haywood (who, if he hasn’t been in every Aussie film ever made, it sure feels like it), shadows the highway and, in the opening, gets a young Aboriginal woman named Susan (Tatea Reilly) to pull her car over. The moment is charged, especially when Haywood screams schizophrenic ravings. For some reason, Susan sits there and waits to be murdered instead of driving off, as Lawrence’s camera flies back.
Stuart (Gabriel Byrne) is an Irish champion rally driver who has retired to a dull, overworked life running a car repair shop in Jindabyne. Surveying his greying hair, he dyes it. He has a son, Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss), by his American wife Claire (Laura Linney), who, in a fit of postnatal depression, left Stuart with the baby for 18 months. Stuart’s mother Vanessa (Betty Lucas) also lives with them, frustrating Claire’s maternal authority. Their neighbours Carl (John Howard) and Jude (Debora Lee-Furness) have a worse pain to hide, the death of their daughter, which left them saddled with their inherently weird, budding Goth granddaughter Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazzaro). Tom and Caylin play together, engaging in activities like trying to sacrifice their schoolmates’ pet guinea pig to dark forces. Billy (Simon Stone) works for Stuart and lives with hippie girlfriend Elissa (Alice Garner) in a campervan. Rocco (Stelios Yakimis) is married to Aboriginal schoolteacher Carmel (Leah Purcell). The four families congregate at a dinner before the four men set off on the trip that fills their dreams. We see the killer dump the girl’s body in a river; he keeps her car in a shed on his property. Stuart finds the body and freaks out; Carl twists his ankle, and, deciding they can’t do anything about it, they tether the corpse in the water where the chill will prevent it rotting, and go about their fishing.
Billy tires first of the charade, and after two days, they all hike out of the hills and phone the police. They are, of course, soon lambasted by cops, media, and family. Worst of all, the racial identity of the girl causes local Aboriginal youths to throw bricks through windows, upturn offices, and generally abuse the four men. Carmel is livid, and her marriage with Rocco seems shattered. Jude, very Aussie, is as dismissive of the event as she was with Caylin’s rodent killing. Claire is deeply affected and ashamed, very American in her desire to heal and connect; she takes up a collection to help pay for the funeral, which the family rebuffs, questioning her motives. Stuart remains incommunicative, and Claire’s nerves fray.
I’d like to say the slow burn of guilt, recrimination, and shadowy threat combusts, but really it just squelches. Claire and Stuart have a bust-up, in which Stuart admits he rejoiced in escaping his overworked life in the glory of nature for a few days. Caylin seems to be tempted to let Tom drown in another of her death experiments, but then saves him. Bill and Elissa leave for the north coast, abandoning Stuart to work alone in the garage. Claire threatens to leave Stuart, and gives the money she collected to the local pastor (Bud Tingwell). Haywood’s working at the church and follows Claire, getting her to pull off the road; he eyes her with menace but then seeming to decide she’s a bit close to home, and drives away. She goes to the Smoking Ritual, a rite held by Susan’s family and tribal folk to exorcise the hills. Stuart, Carl, and Rocco arrive on their own accord, and Stuart apologises to Susan’s father (Kevin Smith), who throws dirt in his face and spits on the ground. Stuart and Claire, nonetheless, kiss and make up. Haywood continues to sit in wait for prey on the highway.
Spurning manhunt or melodrama, Jindabyne claims to be a social, familial, and moral study; if a bogeyman really does start terrorising us, how will we act? The tacked-on racial theme seems present mainly for its topicality, and distracts from Carver’s theme of misogyny. Because we know the men didn’t kill Susan, the tension of responsibility is discharged. But it is unfair to compare constantly to Carver. Jindabyne is its own creation, distinct in purposes from Carver’s story (and also Altman’s, whose approach was a blackly humorous absurdity as the fisherman garrulously enjoyed themselves whilst regarding the body as equivalent to rubbish). Making Stuart and Claire foreigners might emphasise disconnection, but also alienates them from the crucial sense of normality, and of questioning of a cultural imperative that is urgent in the matter. Lawrence’s consistent theme is the pain that lies underneath ordinary lives, and Jindabyne is at least not as arch as Lantana, a film so obsessed with its style it felt like a lawn clipped with scissors. But Lawrence can’t resist these put-on narratives, and never seems to arrive at saying something indelible. His resolutions trail off into mutterings under his breath.
Restrained emotionalism reigns, but the closeted hysteria that is always the flipside of such behaviour (and situations) is absent. Lawrence tries to show decency essentially maintaining itself—Caylin’s decision to save Tom mirrors the men’s fronting up to their shame with Susan’s family—but the film is so afraid of the powerful events and feelings with which it want to engage it fails to fulfil itself in the most crucial way: Why should we care? The men are all far from heroic, but also not convincingly foolish or self-absorbed enough to make their actions believable. The closest of the characters to the psychological type Carver was studying is Carl, who, when Billy mentions that Elissa is bisexual, henceforth describes her as “The Lesbian” who commands him, the film’s sole acknowledgement of a kind of aggressively macho mindset, the only element of the film that hints at real meat instead of pussyfooting. But Lawrence keeps reducing this to a punchline, and Elissa plays no part in the story.
Because Lawrence shows us the men finding the body, etc., the ambiguity of the situation is almost entirely lost; we know they didn’t kill her, that they got no special thrill from it, and we’re left with one slightly strained reading of the situation. (Couldn’t one of them have walked to the top of the hill and called the cops? It would probably have ruined their weekend less; alternatively, why weren’t any of them clever enough to think, hey, why don’t we say we didn’t find it until the last day? Because then there’d be no story!) Lawrence can’t portray real sexism, racism, carelessness over the dead, bloodshed, marital strife, or anything, just more furrowed brows. Dramatically the film walks on eggshells, afraid to ruffle things up with something rude or not absorbed into its glowering mediocrity.
What especially amuses me about Jindabyne is that it owes all of its attempts to capture and hold interest by stealing the tropes of genre filmmaking, but holds itself above such disciplines of generic storytelling. Jindabyne lays on menace with a trowel and reminded me a half-dozen horror films on the way as well as self-consciously referencing Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). A couple of days before watching this film, I watched a Canadian omnibus film called The Uncanny (1977), an episode of which features an orphaned girl whose mother invested her with magical-gothic trappings. The resemblance to the Caylin-Calandria character was striking, and Lawrence uses Caylin for exactly the same kind of injection of spooky charge. She and Tom believe that the submerged village is the home of zombies, and that the adults are being infected by zombiedom, which tries to add to the moody portent but also amusingly conjures the episode of The Simpsons in which children misinterpret adults’ sexual dalliances as evidence of a conspiracy of “reverse-vampires.” A moment where Billy stands under weirdly singing power lines, presaging the upcoming discovery of the body, is a direct quote from Sidney Hayers’ In the Devil’s Garden (1971). When the men are in the bush, Lawrence has shaky POV shots from the bush, as if they’re being watched, one of the oldest stunts in the book. Haywood’s truck, his grizzled threat, and the deliberate irresolution evoke another film based on Bradley Murdoch; yes, Jindabyne is the arthouse equivalent of Wolf Creek.
Lawrence obviously thinks he’s made a troubling, incisive drama about the frailty of average human lives. In fact, all he’s really done is prove how weak-kneed his approach is compared with the attack of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left or The Hills Have Eyes, which don’t just ruffle the feathers of the family unit, but eat them alive. Jindabyne is closely related to a film like In the Bedroom (2001), a film that also curiously failed through an overly artful approach so concerned about avoiding exploitativeness that it missed something crucial about life-and-death situations. Of recent films of this type, by far the best is the French thriller Feux rouges (2004), adapted from a Georges Simenon novel, a masterpiece of personal observation and slow-cranking tension that successfully avoids generic solutions without making a show of it.