Death and sadness saturate Ray Lawrence's Jindabyne, and it's no wonder: Lawrence loosely based his film on a short story by the minimalist American writer Raymond Carver, whose fiction has become legendary in literary circles since his death, at age 50, in 1988.
As a technique, minimalism is certainly contrived. But as an effect, by holding things back, it forces us to consider every word, or in the case of a movie, every word, gesture and image.
Jindabyne begins with a mystery that soon precipitates a moral cascade. On an isolated road in the hilly Australian countryside, an older man with binoculars watches a young Aboriginal woman traveling alone in her car, then kills her after persuading her to stop. This happens on the outskirts of Jindabyne, a tiny town with a service station run by Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), who is Irish. His wife, Claire (Laura Linney), is American, and they have a young son.
Stewart's pals are the three guys who work for him. Among them is Carl, married to Jude, whose daughter is dead, leaving behind a dangerously nihilistic little girl for the grandparents to raise. Stewart's mother, who came from Ireland to look after her expatriate family, is in conflict with Claire.
Then, on a fishing trip, the men discover the floating body of the woman killed in the prologue. They tether her to a tree, finish their excursion, and call the police when it's time to go home a few days later. The moral consequences of their choice, and the publicity it incites, propel the second half of Jindabyne.
This is excellent, if specialized, dramatic filmmaking: methodical, intelligent, disquieting and carefully acted by its ensemble. Lawrence is the Terrence Malick of Australia: Revered by critics, respected by discerning audiences, but the author of only three films (the others are Bliss and Lantana) in 21 years. (Malick has so far made four films in 34 years.)
In Jindabyne, we watch people watch each other and examine themselves (literally and figuratively) as Lawrence, using an Australian context, explores some inscrutable truths about the human condition. His conflict takes place in the nexus of the existential and the spiritual: our immutable fear that anything could happen at any time, despite our knowledge that it almost certainly won't. ("People die in the wrong order," says Jude. "That's pretty much when it all turns to shit.")
Because the dead girl was not white, the men's decision to continue their walkabout raises questions of racism. Lawrence weaves this element into his tapestry of themes, and he brings the two cultures to an awkward moment of shared tragedy, if not quite renewal. Along the way, the subdued (minimal?) emotions of these everyday people slowly seethe and then explode into moments of rage and near ruin. You leave Jindabyne with explanations of why things happened but not with a full understanding, a good sensation that is, by design I think, more realistic than it is recondite.
Starts Fri., July 20. Regent Square