New Haunts
by Kristi Mitsuda

Dir. Ray Lawrence, Australia, Sony Pictures Classics

I fully expected the anticipation that built up for five long years to negatively affect my perceptions of the new film by Ray Lawrence; the chances of the director equaling the perfectly calibrated critical success of his last film, Lantana, seemed slim. But if Jindabyne doesn’t quite coalesce like its taut predecessor, it comes close enough; its unevenness is made up for by its ambitious wanderings through trickier, thought-provoking terrain, and, although it goes slack occasionally, clocking in at just over two hours, the film resonates with rhythmic momentum.

Expanding upon Raymond Carver’s short story “So Much Water So Close to Home” (the same upon which one of the strands in Robert Altman’s Carver compendium Short Cuts is based) but relocated to the movie’s titular Ozzie town, Jindabyne opens with expertly rendered atmosphere. Lawrence cross-cuts between a beautiful Aborigine girl (Tatea Reilly) blithely singing as she drives along an open road, and a man (Chris Haywood) watching her through binoculars, backed up by the threatening thrum of his truck’s waiting engine (paired with Grindhouse, it would seem that vehicular terrorizing is the serial killer’s preferred shtick of the moment). Like Lantana, this latest is positioned as a thriller (see its by-the-numbers trailer), but Jindabyne similarly eschews typical potboiler tendencies involving plot twists and physical action and focuses instead on emotional trajectories. The mysteries lie in the intricacies of interaction amongst, in this case, a quartet of close couples, and Lawrence’s concentration on conjuring a quieter realism results in an unexpectedly stimulating exploration.

A curious moment portends the grisly discovery about to come as four friends set out on an annual fishing trip: Billy (Simon Stone), the youngest of the bunch, goes to pee near some power lines after cresting a hill, and the static hum of electricity, which recalls the sound of the killer’s idling motor, spooks him so that he runs to catch up with his friends. As so often is the case in Australian cinema, the land quickly takes on a life of its own—most strikingly at the instant when Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) discovers the now-dead girl’s body floating in the river. As he holds her in his arms, his cries for help echo off the mountains, and the camera zooms out to miniaturize his figure. Awakening an acute consciousness of the physical environment, Lawrence imparts an impressive recognition of the pull the natural world exerts on individuals in a country defined by so much space. In doing so, he extends sympathetic understanding to the circle of men at the pivotal juncture—when they decide not to immediately hike back to report the body, but continue with their fishing plans for the next day. As the camera caresses water rushing over rocks and leaves rustling in the wind, every shot accompanied by an amplified sound mix including the buzz of bees and birdsong, the foursome—unthinkable as it may seem with a body nearby, tethered to a tree to keep her from drifting downstream—cast their lines. But, swathed in the idyllic morning light, this surrender to their surroundings seems almost acceptable; we, like them, feel transported, and are able to grasp their rationalizations: She’s beyond help; why not stay? We’ve been looking forward to this trip for weeks.

But after reporting the find to the police, beginning to realize the extremity of their (in)actions, the group nearly takes on the countenance of a murderous gang with talk of “getting their stories straight” and a false excuse—that Carl (John Howard) twisted his ankle badly enough to keep them from returning—spun. Soon Stewart’s wife, Claire (Laura Linney), is asking, “What really happened out there?” Jindabyne’s gradual build-up prior to this catalyzing moment has allusively, craftily laid the foundation for the familial and communal eruptions to come, and Claire’s quest for clarification triggers a narrative shift to accommodate her search. Jindabyne’s amorphous storyline suddenly finds its focus: the past (Lawrence aptly describes it as a “ghost story” in the press notes) and the ways in which it continues to haunt the present.

This return of the repressed includes historical resentments and suspicions resurrected by the white men’s mishandling of the situation. One of the relatives of the deceased poses the question on the TV news: Would any of them have behaved differently if the girl had been white (a sentiment later echoed when Claire wonders aloud whether Stewart would’ve done otherwise had it been a boy floating facedown in the water, whether he would have covered his naked body with a blanket)? The ripples the young girl’s death sends through the indigenous community inevitably raises the question of whether or not these experiences are unfairly backgrounded by Jindabyne’s focus on the perspectives of the Caucasian principles. At times, Claire’s obsessive need to put things right (including her offer of money to the family, to help pay for the funeral) feels outlandishly invasive and self-serving; a white woman—an American in Australia at that—inserting herself into a place of Aboriginal pain. And yet, this intrusiveness seems a deliberate act of description on Lawrence’s part.

Although Claire remains the locus, each couple deals with residual effects stirred up in the aftermath: She and Stewart with the fallout from her former year-and-a-half long (postpartum depressed?) abandonment of the family; Carl and Jude (Deborra-lee Furness) with their daughter’s death and the attendant knottiness of raising granddaughter Caylin-Calandria (a perfectly cast, spectral Eva Lazzaro); Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis) and Carmel (Leah Purcell) with her divided loyalties (split between her native culture and the white boyfriend implicated in the scandal). Meanwhile, Billy and Elissa (Alice Garner) grapple more elusively with another issue—how his genuine sensitivity might be blighted under the tutelage of his hardened male friends.

Aside from obvious intimations about the differences between men and women (feminine emphasis on emoting, masculine prizing of pragmatism) wafting about the story at large, the film goes provocatively further. Jindabyne suggests that such casually cruel neglect as that displayed by the otherwise solid-seeming mates arises from a culture wherein a man calling a woman a “bitch” is acceptable. The murderer mutters the word—directed at his unsuspecting prey—at the film’s opening. Much later, Claire, frustrated in her efforts to understand her husband’s behavior, hurls a cup of coffee at Stewart and, when one of a couple of onlookers nonchalantly brandishes the word, she confronts him—until Stewart pulls her back, waits until she’s turned away, shrugs ruefully at the other men as if to say, “What can you do?” Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian strikingly place this everyday occurrence on a larger continuum of violence against women. And notable screen time spent establishing Stewart’s working-class background, and the particular rituals of male bonding built around beer drinking and “secret men’s business” (as one of the gang describes the fishing trip up in the mountains), further details a tacitly misogynistic culture.

Jindabyne offers neither conclusions nor prescriptions. Compelling and complex, it subtly maps nebulous intersection points along race, class, and gender lines. Concluding with an Aboriginal ceremony, a spiritual smoking where Susan’s (we later learn her name) body is laid to rest, Lawrence’s film offers up a beautiful, if too brief, respite from these bodily concerns.