Aussie film Jindabyne (dir. Ray Lawrence) impressed Tom Jennings, capturing a community’s complexities in a manner cinema seldom manages.
A Sorrowful Social Fabric
Raymond Carver’s 1977 minimalist morality tale, ‘So Much Water So Close To Home’, was previously adapted in Robert Altman’s portmanteau Short Cuts (1993). Screenwriter Beatrix Christian’s visual novel now expands its context in Jindabyne, showing the wider effects of grievous injuries and insults in the titular tourist town in the Snowy Mountains, New South Wales. The cinematography showcases the dramatic landscape’s implacable material presence, regularly lingering on evidence of its taming, shaping and corralling – hypnotising viewers with jaw-dropping vistas while subtly influencing our attentiveness to characters whose relationships with the surrounding geography reflect, affect and work as metaphors for their emotional, family and community lives. The resulting rich texture simultaneously grounds, teases apart and weaves together the different interacting dimensions of human existence – unconscious dreams and fantasies, actions and reactions, past and present circumstances – as crises wax and wane within and among Jindabyne’s inhabitants.
Car mechanic Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) and his three employees plan a male-bonding fishing weekend in a hidden valley as respite from problems of work, families and women – the latter having their own issues and jealous of the men’s self-indulgence but at least temporarily freed from their demands. However, having reached their idyll and casting his line, Stewart spots the body of young Aboriginal woman Susan (Tatea Reilly) floating in the river – whereupon he tethers her and persuades the others to continue their relaxation. Only belatedly raising the alarm, their callousness is pilloried in the town, the local native youth threaten to run riot, and relationships among the men and their partners unravel. Stewart’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) unblocks her longstanding depressive ambivalence, repudiating him in active (but unwelcome) compassion for Susan’s family while working through hitherto suppressed guilt and anger concerning her own. Her honest desperation to find a way forward inspires the others to confront their various demons and support each other, starting at Susan’s funeral.
We know from the menacing prelude that the murderer is psychotic loner Gregory (Chris Haywood). But the anticipated crime procedural, with comforting resolution of arrest and restoration of law and order (as in director Ray Lawrence’s previous film, 2001’s Lantana), is replaced by a forensic mapping of the heinous act’s implications for the surrounding social ensemble. Details of the histories of personality, space and place consistently intersect and overlay each other – with Gregory himself a general building contractor responsible for maintaining the local infrastructure, implying that the pathologies threatening civilisation are intrinsic to the processes sustaining it. Similarly, the hum of gigantic pylons marking the comprehensive colonisation of the land is confused by the visitors with the mystique of wilderness – the boys’ own adventure communing with nature already being thoroughly suffused with the conflicts and constraints of everyday routine. The repercussions of their gruesome discovery then demonstrate that conventional discourses of escape to greener pastures cannot wish away obscene reality.
Neither can it be tolerated at home. So the community’s righteous condemnation serves to displace momentary uneasy awareness of endemic racism and misogyny, via projection (mirroring the film’s neglect of the police investigation), onto convenient scapegoats. Symbolically outcasting the men and their families permits normal respectable white indifference to soon return, with potential disturbance to business as usual minimised. And, despite the geographical specificity, similar patterns resonate in any society characterised by migration and stratification. These lower-class Australians are Irish, Anglo-Saxon, American, Italian, mixed-race and native in various archaic and modern permutations and inflections of background, identification and tradition, whose struggles confound liberal multiculturalism’s sedimentation of difference into patronising exoticisations of authenticity. Spiritual and political integrity instead requires pragmatic strategies to deal with tragedy and pain which refuse to externalise frustrated desire into the separate suffering of others.
Nevertheless, the choice to close with the Aboriginal smoking ceremony (which required lengthy negotiations for permission to film) flirts with sentimental redemption. However, Claire’s insistence that the group pay their respects encourages them beyond the disavowal of prior contempt, having already placed her in various social and physical perils (including a near-miss with Gregory). The women elders eventually sanction their attendance – interpreting Claire’s motivation as genuine, arising out of weakness rather than arrogance. Then, Stewart’s faltering apology is met with disgust by the girl’s father, whereby the film’s acknowledgement of historic and contemporary outrages perpetrated against native Australians counters detached truth and reconciliation with empassioned humility. Emphasising shared mundane human frailty also undercuts ritual denunciations of masculinity, pointing to the basis of true solidarity in empathetic engagement rather than moralisation – having thoroughly implicated the dynamics of relations between men and women and different generations and sections of the population in reproducing division and domination.
If the treatment of mutual uncomprehending need in marriages straining to survive their contradictions transcends the formulaic thanks to superior scripting and powerful naturalistic improvisation (with Lawrence, citing Ken Loach, favouring single takes in ambient light), Jindabyne’s structure of surface levels and murky depths exploits ghost story conventions most poignantly in depicting the children. Striving to overcome overwhelming anxiety originating in unaccountable parental misdeeds leads their febrile imaginations to conjure supernatural revelations in the dangerously tempting drowned world of the lake – which also functions as the focus of the tourist economy. Here, too, traces of the past concretely haunt the present. The village was moved lock, stock and barrel to higher ground when the valley was dammed – the whole enterprise to meet metropolitan water needs, setting up contemporary socio-economics and displacing natives and settlers alike with the intransigent force of institutional authority. The echoes of submerged histories thus exert material, political, biographical, psychoanalytic, cultural and mythic influence, and this remarkable film convincingly and compassionately evokes such a density of allusion – offering no easy answers; yet optimistic that ordinary folk can negotiate the morass towards a more constructive future outside the ruination of hierarchical power.
Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 19, October 2007.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: