November 20, 2007 -- “Jindabyne” is a story about a moral choice made on a fishing trip that escalates into marital and racial strife in a small town in Australia. The director of this film, Ray Lawrence (“Lantana”) calls the choice made at the heart of the movie a “fantastic moral dilemma.” I found it far short of fantastic. Mildly interesting is more like it. The screenplay is based on a short story by Raymond Carver, “So Much Water, So Close to Home.” I read the story and it, like the film is mildly interesting, less a moral dilemma than a meditation on the differences between men and women in matters of social decorum.
Stuart Kane (played by Gabriel Byrne of “Assault on Precinct 13”) and three friends take their annual fishing trip to a remote river. After hiking for the better part of a day, they arrive at the river and begin to fish. Kane discovers the body of a young murdered Aborigine girl floating in the river. It is too late to hike back out that day. The next day, Kane gets up early and starts fishing. The rest of the group falls in line and they spend the rest of the day fishing. They don't hike back out until the next day. Kane ties the body to a tree so it won't float away. They keep the body in the river to preserve it, otherwise it would decompose in the summer heat. The men call the police when they get back to their car. Kane pleads with the men to “keep our stories straight.” They make up a story about how one of the men had trouble walking out because of an injury and that is why they delayed their return trip. The truth gets out anyway and it stirs up a commotion in the town of Jindabyne, where the men live. The Aborigines are angry because the men's action showed no respect for the dead girl. Kane's wife, Claire (Laura Linney of “Breach”) is very upset with her husband.
Claire takes up donations from people in Jindabyne to help pay for the funeral and tries to persuade her husband and his friends to attend the funeral. Kane becomes more and more angry with his wife and there is friction between him and his friends as well. An angry Aborigine man throws a rock through the window of the motor home of one of the men on the trip, Billy “The Kid” (Simon Stone), Billy decides to move away from Jindabyne. Eventually the situation reaches a crisis.
The problem with the movie is that the moral dilemma seems pretty weak. The movie never provides a good explanation as to why the men did not report the dead body immediately, or why they didn't come up with a better cover story, or why they didn't stick to the one they had. If the dead body was ignored out of callous indifference, that is certainly contradicted by Kane's initial emotional reaction to the body. Claire keeps harping on her husband for an explanation long after it becomes obvious that he's not going to give her one, all the while avoiding seeking some of those answers from his more talkative fishing buddies. Instead of being a source of moral authority, Claire comes off as annoying (Laura Linney seems to specialize in playing annoying characters). In the original short story, the men on the fishing trip have a discussion about when to report the dead body. That discussion is largely omitted from the movie, and it sure would have helped. If the motivation was based on the race of the murdered girl, that would have lent drama to the story that it lacked. Thankfully, the feelings of the Aborigines are depicted in a more straightforward manner. A confrontation between Kane and the murdered girl's father has the kind of emotional firepower that seems to be lacking in the rest of the film.
Curiously, the murderer of the young girl is revealed immediately. The murderer shows up occasionally throughout the film in odd places. The implication was that the murder was either a hate crime, a sex crime or both. The old town of Jindabyne was submerged by an artificial reservoir and relocated. The film returns to this image of a hidden past and submerged emotions and prejudices from time to time. In the original short story, the murder is resolved, but the moral dilemma of the fishermen is not. In the movie, it is just the opposite. It is a curious film to say the least. The acting is quite good, but the drama is muted. The film's pace is also painfully slow moving. It rates a C+.
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