Jindabyne opens on barbed wire. Ominous in the usual ways, the image turns worse with the cut: a weather-beaten man is watching a far-away Australian road, peering through binoculars, tracking a lone car as it heads from one place to another. Inside is a girl, lovely, unknowing, singing along with her radio. The man watching from such distance, from behind barbed wire, can’t hear her as you do. He starts up his truck. You worry for her.
Based on a Raymond Carver story, Ray Lawrence’s meditation on fear, betrayal, and racism provokes empathy in roundabout ways. From the nervous-making moment of the girl in the car, it cuts to Claire (Laura Linney), just waking in her sunlit bedroom, cuddling with her “main man,” her 10-year-old son Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss), observed by her husband Stewart (Gabriel Byrne). The scene feels sweet enough, but it soon slips into vague discomforts: Stewart and his son go fishing in a nearby lake, talking about the city lost beneath its surface. In this case, it’s not just a myth, but Jindabyne, the southeastern Australian town once intentionally flooded, now rebuilt as a skiing and fly-fishing resort, and here providing a readymade metaphor for repressed feelings and secrets.
Case in point: while father and son pretend for one another that they hear the church bell chiming below the water, Claire is back at the house vomiting, and not telling anyone about it. Stewart, for his part, seems content not to know what’s going on with his wife, preferring instead to focus his energies on his upcoming fishing trip. This annual outing with his mates—neighbors and an employee at Stewart’s garage—leads them far into the mountains, beyond cell phone reception, beyond responsibilities, beyond their sometimes troubling women. While Claire considers what to do following unsurprising news for her doctor (she is, indeed, pregnant), Stewart and company paste up “Gone fishing” signs in their business windows and gas up the SUV.
Ready as they are to tease one another and drink beer by the campfire, the guys are surprised by a grisly discovery during their first few hours away. It’s an Aborigine girl’s corpse (the same girl you’ve seen in the film’s first chilling moments), mostly naked, floating in the very river where they’re casting their flies. Startled, even horrified, by the sight, they set about deciding what to do. That is, they imagine that they have a choice: report the body right away or wait until they return home, on schedule. At first, they try the latter, typing the body to a tree with fishing line so they might spend the day doing what they set out to do. The next morning, they leave, but only when Billy (Simon Stone) becomes so rattled that he insists. At this point, they conjure a “story,” concerning Carl’s (John Howard) twisted ankle and thus, their initial lack of mobility.
The fact that they know they need a cover story is one thing. The fact that they spent the ride up to the lake giving Billy a hard time for his devotion to his girlfriend Elissa (Alice Garner), a “former” lesbian whose “progressive” thinking plainly bothers them, is another. The men understand, at some level, that their thinking is backwards, that they’ve fundamentally disrespected the dead girl. They don’t see the problem as “racist” right away, however. This possibility comes crashing down on them upon their return to town, when Elissa’s predictable upset is the least of their problems. The men are best with questions, from their own friends and acquaintances and then, by the Aboriginal community.
For Claire and Stewart, the event invokes a past they have barely suppressed, a lingering distrust and unresolved resentment. On one level, American-born Claire has long felt an “outsider” in Australia, a sensibility exacerbated by her depression and breakdown following Tom’s birth a decade before. Though both parents now adore and compete over their son, when they’re alone together, Stewart adopts a nearly pathological silence. His overbearingly “masculine” sense of rightness is reinforced by his mother Vanessa’s [Betty Lucas] evil-eyed judgment of Claire; as soon as Claire begins questioning Stewart’s behavior on the fishing trip, Vanessa appears, summoned to look after Tom as she had “before.”
Jindabyne uses Claire and Stewart’s increasingly visible and vicious upset to get at broader social and political upsets. “She was dead,” hisses Stewart when Claire asks how he was able to tie her to a tree. “But don’t you see?” Claire pleads, “She needed your help.” While the conversation indicates Claire’s identification with the girl, even her own unforgotten abandonment by Stewart, the question she asks is more complicated than that. For the dilemma facing the family and the seemingly opposed communities is all about “seeing” as a means to understanding. While the white Australians assert the incident at the lake is best forgotten, Claire pushes for resolution, approaching the dead girl’s incensed family, and cajoling her friends—including Carl’s wife Jude (the superb Deborra-Lee Furness, star of 1987’s Shame)—to feel responsible and more to the point, to behave as if they are. That Stewart and Claire’s friends include the mixed blood Carmel (Leah Purcell), Tom’s schoolteacher and girlfriend to the fourth fisherman Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis), further complicates the roiling umbrage. Always caught between cultures and needs, Carmel can’t help Claire find her own way through the conflicts, expectations, and racist history that shapes the current situation.
Claire’s various struggles—with her husband and mother-in-law, with her own past and sense of guilt, with her sudden sense of the connections of morality and compassion—become the film’s center, a point underlined by a somewhat clunky device, when she’s spotted on the road by the killer. His hanging round the edges of the action, observing the effects of his handiwork, makes him seem responsible but also not. A consequence of the ongoing history that has brought the communities to their inability to mourn together, the killer lurks, silent and knowing. While his pathology is surely and disturbingly extreme, it’s of a piece with the community that produces and fails to see him.