Watered down

The Carver-carving Jindabyne comes close, but it's no Lantana

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I've read more than once that Raymond Carver stories are short and laconic by artistic necessity. Some critics are invoking this dogma in writing of Ray Lawrence's new movie, Jindabyne, and the story it's based on, "So Much Water So Close to Home" (also used as a thread in Robert Altman's Carver buffet Short Cuts). This is, at least where "So Much Water" is concerned, horse puckey. But Lawrence (director of 2001's wonderful Lantana and 1985's just-shy-of-brilliant Bliss) and screenwriter Beatrix Christian have only gone half the distance to prove it.

As Carver wrote the story, a woman struggles with the knowledge that her husband and his buddies decided to continue their fishing trip after finding a woman's body in the river, not reporting the discovery for two days. Lawrence transplants the American story to Jindabyne, a second chance of a town in Australia's New South Wales, relocated from its original spot, which is now under a human-made lake. The film adds characters and gives those original to the short story more unpleasantness to remember and more to look forward to, but it does substantially more in this undertaking than read Carver's tea leaves. Particularly successful is the invention of an authority-undermining mother-in-law, whose strain on the already precarious marriage of Claire (Laura Linney) and Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) is no mere device. But the best-directed relationship in the movie is the one between the fishers and the river: the act of fishing is so lovingly captured as to implicate the audience in their decision to stay.

Overall, however, Lawrence's style is so highly pitched (slow tracking shots of the mystery that is nature, indigenous wailing in the soundtrack, hypnotized stares aplenty) that the ugly power of the men's decision is undercut by the film's bigness. It waters down the shame — my preferred reading of the dammed-up Jindabyne metaphor — by elevating it. This same style was so much better suited to the tinier, coincidence-laden universe of Lantana, which actually held the mystery and danger that the editing and sound design so unaccountably try to re-create in Jindabyne.

Then there are the two megafuckups. Fuckup numero uno: the woman's killer, ridiculously, is kept around in the movie to ooga-booga the proceedings at 20-minute intervals. He smacks strongly of the psycho in 2005's limbs–torn–asunder–from–Down Under anatomy lesson Wolf Creek, but he lacks that character's bitterness and intelligence. He also lacks any relevance to the story once he's served his unfortunate inaugural purpose. But fuckup number two is a far bigger betrayal of the otherwise remarkably nurtured primary text: Lawrence and Christian graft race and class politics onto the self-contained family drama in the form of the discovered body, an Aboriginal woman, and her angry family. (For a lesson in subtly handled class politics, Wolf Creek, hand to god, is the way to go.) At first Claire's quixotic attempts to connect with the woman's family are good for the film's battered soul: the men's shameful negligence is followed by her flailing, insensitive attempts to make things right. But the film actually gives Claire and Stewart (and hell, everybody, in an end-of-the-movie congregation worthy of Scooby-Doo) their closure, and no less in a final sequence that is also blatant cultural voyeurism. An intended irony can be argued, I suppose, but some ironies are a lot more convenient than others. *


Opens Fri/11 in Bay Area theaters

See Movie Clock at www.sonyclassics.com/jindabyne

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