In a film that genuflects so devoutly, even stolidly, over schisms running along the rote themes of racial, gender and familial strife, the overarching theme of director Ray Lawrence's Jindabyne really revolves around the sundry shades of mortality.
Whether it's the young lady whose truncated life sets the table for the entire storyline, a middle-aged man who blackens the gray in his hair, a grandmother struggling to sustain her nurturing relevance, or a housewife who wonders when the Bee Gees became passé, the landscape is littered with lessons about the joy and pain of time's passage.
It is ironic, then, that time often seems to stop while watching Lawrence's first movie since 2001's Lantana and only the third in his 22-year career. Lawrence has been called the Australian Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven) both for his sporadic filmography and penchant for slow-panned, wide-angle natural landscapes. For me, admittedly not the biggest Malick fan, the comparison is more acutely found here in Lawrence's reliance upon minimalist dialogue and stagnant pacing. Couple that with relentless melodrama and heavy-handed atmospherics, and you have a mostly fascinating, sometimes infuriating look at the consequences of life's choices and the fickle finger of fate.
As in Lantana, a corpse figures heavily in the plot. After Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) stumbles across the body of a naked aboriginal girl floating in the river on Friday, he and his four buddies continue their annual male-bonding fishing trip until Sunday, when they finally report their gruesome discovery. In the absence of a murder suspect, public ire targets the callousness of the four fishermen. The external controversy and ensuing pressure gradually reveals preexisting fissures in the relationships between the men and their wives, especially Stewart and his already strained marriage to Claire (Laura Linney), a transplanted American and mother to their young son, Tom.
This is not the first time author Raymond Carver's So Much Water So Close to Home has been referenced onscreen: It and eight other short stories by Carver comprise the collective inspiration for Robert Altman's Short Cuts, where Fred Ward and Anne Archer filled the Stewart and Claire roles. Here, the core of Carver's (a)morality play remains compelling, and Linney and Byrne are outstanding even if their characters are rather unlikable and annoying. But, the mistake by Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian is amplifying the personal conflicts and social moralizing beyond the point of merely complementing the central storyline or fleshing out its characters. Instead, the overly elongated narrative settles into a kind of Down Under version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? replete with lots of politically correct handwringing.
It all makes for a mature but thematically bloated film in which the secrets and emotional pain fester barely submerged below the surface of a placid everyday, an extension of the metaphors conjured by a mysterious dead body floating face-down atop the Snowy River and the town of Jindabyne itself—its original site was intentionally flooded and covered by a newly created lake when the river was dammed in the 1960s, an event referenced several times. The common thread running throughout is that the past never leaves us, no matter how hard we try to ignore or conceal it.