A solitary trucker lies in wait beside a New South Wales backroad. Spying a young woman driving alone, he gives chase and is later shown dumping her body in a nearby stream... So far, so Wolf Creek. But while Ray Lawrence’s Australian drama starts in conventional thriller territory, it’s what happens to the victim after her murder that drives this measured meditation on guilt, race and collective responsibility.
Based on the same Raymond Carver story that inspired the Huey Lewis segment in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Jindabyne’s true focus is on the four anglers – among them Gabriel Byrne’s taciturn garage owner Stewart – who discover the corpse floating in a river while on their annual fishing trip. Opting to delay reporting their find until their boys’ weekend is over, they head home to a community outraged by their callousness. Most shocked of all is Stewart’s wife Claire (Laura Linney), whose ham-fisted attempts to make amends to the girl’s Aboriginal family stir up old resentments, enmities and prejudices.
You’d think all this would be enough to be getting on with, but Lawrence – whose last film was the excellent-if-little-seen Lantana – and writer Beatrix Christian feel otherwise, overstocking their slender narrative with a redundant back story and extra subplot. One of Byrne’s fishing buddies has an Aboriginal partner (Leah Purcell); another (John Howard) is raising his granddaughter after losing her mother to breast cancer. Linney is tormented by the post-natal depression that led her to temporarily abandon her child, now a morbid kid obsessed with the submerged town which lies at the bottom of the local reservoir. Then there’s the murderer himself (Chris Haywood), a threatening presence who looms over the arid landscape like some silent harbinger of doom.
Throw in a tribal funeral that lasts the better part of a day and you could be forgiven for wishing Lawrence had displayed some of Carver and Altman’s admirable economy – it takes half the film to establish the relationships between the characters (and it never does get round to showing us how an American woman ended up living with an Irish husband slap-bang in the middle of kangaroo country).
Despite this, though, Linney’s intense performance emerges as a masterful portrait of contained anguish, while DoP David Williamson only has to point his lens at the imposing scenery to give the movie its sense of brooding, eerie menace.