The opening scenes of Jindabyne suggest a horror film, or more precisely, the suburban dread of (mainstream period) David Lynch. A girl is driving across country, singing along to a song on the radio. She is watched, and then chased, by a man in a truck, who pulls ahead of her and blocks the road. The action then cuts to Jindabyne –a “tidy town” on the sign outside the civic limits – where everyday life is proceeding, unaffected by the fact that something dreadful has just happened. Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) is teaching his boy to fish, and telling him about the town that exists beneath the lake, and how he once heard the bell of the submerged church ringing from under the surface. At home, with sheep bleating in the background, Stewart’s wife Claire (a glacial Laura Linney) is fixing the sprinkler in the garden, when she suddenly vomits. All is not well in tidy town.
But, although director Ray Lawrence’s last film, Lantana, had an opening that almost quoted Twin Peaks, and his subject is the dread that lurks beneath suburban good manners, the parallel with Lynch is misleading. Lynch believes in disquiet for its own sake. Lawrence wants to unravel its tendrils, and to dissect the logic of midlife dread. Both directors are fascinated by evil, but the shit that happens in Lawrence’s world is more realistic than supernatural.
Jindabyne is based on So Much Water So Close to Home, the short story by Raymond Carver which also found its way into Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. The story concerns a wife who cannot comprehend her husband’s decision to keep fishing after discovering the drowned body of a girl in the water. Carver’s story is spare in its detail. Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian add the architecture of a small town and, by making the drowned girl an Aborigine and placing the action in New South Wales, bring a distinctly Australian twist to tale which threatens to overpower it.
The film is dominated by disappointment. The imagery of death is everywhere. From the first scenes, Stewart is established as a man in denial. The yellowing cuttings on the wall of his garage show him to be a former rally champion, but he is now reduced to inspecting his hair in the mirror, looking for grey. His mother, Vanessa (Betty Lucas) a domineering Irishwoman whose presence irks Claire, takes one look at his dye job and tells him: “That hair makes you look like the kind of man who visits prostitutes.”
All the characters have secrets, and all seem imprisoned by them. Claire, who is pregnant, seems gripped by fear at the prospect. The unwelcome presence of Betty is caused, we understand, by some kind of breakdown in Claire’s past, and the two women are engaged in an unceasing power-struggle. Claire and Stewart’s young son Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss), meanwhile, is friends with Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazzaro), whose morbid curiosity leads her to sacrifice the school guinea pig, and to enquire, on witnessing Claire’s morning sickness: “Are you going to die?”
So oppressive is this environment, that it is hardly surprising that the men have devised a means of escape. Every year, they hike into the woods for a fishing excursion, with no women allowed. Cigars are smoked, jokes told. “Three beautiful women walk into a bar,” says one. “A black, a brunette and a lesbian.” Another replies: “What colour hair has the lesbian got?”
On the first night, Stewart discovers the naked body of the girl floating in the water. After some discussion, the men decide to tether the body to the bank, and report it on their return. In the context – they are in an isolated spot, out of range for mobile phones – this doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable, though Billy (Simon Stone), the youngest member of the group, urges them to cut short their excursion. To soothe their guilt, the men agree a cover story, saying that a sprained ankle prevented them from returning immediately. Even Billy is unaware of the seriousness of what they have done. Phoning home the next morning, he reports: “We found a body. I caught the most amazing fish, though.”
What follows is an examination of the different ways men and women react to tragedy. Stewart is stoical, and bemused by the fuss. Claire is traumatised, telling him that the girl needed his help. “She was beyond help,” Stewart replies. “There was nothing anyone could do for her.”
Would they have reacted differently if the body had been male, or white? Why does Claire become so obsessively involved, raising money for the funeral of the dead girl?
The conclusion is less satisfactory than the terse parable which precedes it, but it is fitting, at least, that the term for an aboriginal funeral is a “sorry business”.