In "Jindabyne," four men go on a fishing trip close to the New South Wales town that gives the Australian film its name. There they discover a drowned young woman in the water. Instead of making the trek back to their truck, they finish out the excursion before returning home to report the incident. The outrage that greets the men from their wives, girlfriends, and their community is at first incomprehensible to them. They don't believe that they did anything wrong. After all, the woman was dead when they found her. There was nothing they could do to save her.
If this all sounds familiar, that's because it's based on "So Much Water So Close to Home," the same Raymond Carver short story that Robert Altman used for a portion of his "Short Cuts." Writer-director Ray Lawrence, well regarded for his two previous films, "Bliss" and "Lantana," expands Carver's work into an indictment of colonialism and an examination of the chasm that supposedly exists between men and women over matters of the heart.
Lawrence focuses on Stewart Kane (Gabriel Byrne), one of the men, and his wife, Claire (Laura Linney). Because she first hears the news about the fishing trip from others, Claire becomes unhinged by her husband's betrayal of their trust.
She becomes a one-woman crusade to goad the community into helping the dead woman's family. The campaign falls on deaf ears. Since the woman lived in a nearby Aboriginal community, the incident has racial overtones. Lawrence presents Claire as a white liberal do-gooder whose efforts, while well-meaning, are misguided (and not welcomed by the Aborigines).
The men's behavior is likewise presented in racial terms. The question becomes: Would they have behaved differently – more responsibly – if the drowned woman were white? Without being overtly explicit about it, Lawrence makes it clear where his sympathies lie. For him, this story is a metaphor for the depredations of colonialism. (We even get to see how the woman is murdered – by a crazed white local, of course.)
By expanding the confines of Carver's tale, Lawrence risks diluting its elemental power. While it makes a kind of ideological sense to cast the men's actions in racial terms, it makes less dramatic sense. The horror of the incident is overlaid with political indignation that feels tacked on.
In some ways, Lawrence is also contorting the story's elemental power by emphasizing its male-female polarities. His implicit premise is that the men did what they did because they were men. The fact that the woman was Aboriginal is less important than the fact that she was already dead and they didn't want to immediately curtail their bonding expedition.
Would their wives and girlfriends have behaved in diametrically opposite ways from the men? Lawrence seems to think so, but who knows? By typing male and female behavior so starkly, he risks perpetuating a different kind of cliché. He's loaded the deck by positioning the men as macho adventurers, and the woman as outraged caregivers.
And yet such is the inherent power of the Carver material that "Jindabyne" rises above its polemics. Lawrence may be accused of overreaching, but given his history of artistic ambition, it's difficult to imagine him framing this material as simply a fishing trip gone bad. Still, if he was a deeper artist, he might have found a way to achieve his ambitions without resorting to obviousness. Hemingway could do this sort of thing, and, in his own way, Carver could, too – their resonant simplicity contained multitudes. "Jindabyne" operates on a starker, less nuanced level, but it still confronts the audience with a question that lingers long after the lights come up: What would you have done? Grade: B
• Rated R for disturbing images, language, and some nudity.