Movie Review – Jindabyne

Jindabyne (2006)
Written by Raymond Carver and Beatrix Christian
Directed by Ray Lawrence

In 2006, sixteen Australian films were released worldwide, one of the largest international surges of movies from that country. Lawrence’s picture is a quiet one, very mature in its storytelling. He’s clearly comfortable telling stories in his own way, letting moments breathe. It’s quite different from the more commercial style editing of Bliss. Obviously, Lawrence was closer to his beginnings in advertising then, so he told stories in that mode. With 21 years between Bliss and Jindabyne, he’d changed as an artist aesthetically, but this picture finds Lawrence still exploring the conflict of personalities in intimate relationships.

Four men from the town of Jindabyne in New South Wales go on their annual fishing trip in the isolated high country. Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) walks down the riverbank looking for a spot to fish and comes across a young woman’s body. She’s an aboriginal person, and the men are overcome with emotion about what to do. They questionably settle on tethering her leg to a branch so she doesn’t float further down the river and then go about their fishing weekend.

When they hike out on Sunday and finally get back in cell phone range, Stewart calls the police and reports the body, leading them to her. The police are upset that the men allowed such a large gap of time as that clouds the crime scene. When people in town hear about their callousness, it doesn’t sit well, especially for Stewart’s wife Claire (Laura Linney). We learn more about everyone involved, including the killer who lives quietly in their community. 

Jindabyne starts with a jolt; we see the events that lead to the murder and cut away before it happens. And then that killing is forgotten for a while as Lawrence spends time introducing and developing Stewart, Claire, and their circle of friends. Tragedy has visited so many of them, especially Caylin-Calandra, a friend of Claire’s son. Her mother died years earlier, and now the girl is raised by her grandparents, who don’t seem very interested in helping her work through her grief. People are in pain throughout this film, but they often suppress it, or other people try to make their suffering about themselves.

Stewart is a profoundly unlikeable character, which is what the script intends. He’s not some overt brute, but it’s clear he yearns for his glory days. Newspaper clippings posted in the gas station he runs tout his accomplishments as a race car driver. Seeing his younger employee flirt with a pretty woman that stops in leads to Stewart dying his hair jet black, which gathers some incredulous looks from his wife.

The discovery of the body is initially horrific to Stewart. But that first night, as the men bed down and go to sleep, Stewart sneaks away to look at the body, even going so far as to gently caress her cheek. This isn’t necrophilia but a continuation of Stewart’s desire to be a powerful man. She’s vulnerable, and that makes him feel strong. We learn Claire is his second wife. His mother has come from Ireland to live with the family, to be close, and help take care of their son. Stewart depends on these women, and as a result, he seethes with resentment, which doesn’t boil over until the end of the second act.

Jindabyne seems to be Lawrence addressing toxic masculine silence against women who communicate and express how they feel about this tragedy. Claire wants to reach out to the Aborigine family of the victim, who are understandably enraged about Stewart’s treatment of her body. Carmel, a friend & part-Aborigine woman, chastizes Claire for trying to impose her grief onto theirs. Claire doesn’t sulk and get angry as Stewart would but listens and tries to change her behaviors.

Lawrence isn’t going to hand us an uncomplicated ending, and in the finale, we get a moment of forgiveness and the idea that healing can begin. But then he ends the movie by reminding us of the evil still out there, continuing its killing spree. This isn’t a picture about justice being served but rather about how we live in a world where justice is a rare commodity. How do we keep communicating even when the pain becomes too much?


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