In the Australian town of Jindabyne mystery flows like the river and the river is about to overflow. Racecar driver-turned-mechanic Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) goes on his annual fishing trip with three buddies (John Howard Stelios Yiakmis and Simon Stone) leaving his ill wife Claire (Laura Linney) at home with their son. While on the trip Stewart and his friends discover a young Aboriginal woman’s dead body floating in the water but lest the trout swim away they decide to wait till morning to alert the authorities. The four friends wind up paying for that non-decision in ways they hadn’t previously foreseen. Upon returning home they’re greeted by what they think is undue public outrage but none is heavier than the punishment levied onto Stewart by an already skeptical Claire. She was the last of the wives to learn of Stewart’s particularly unforgivable actions that day and she joins the rest of the community in not being able to look him in the eye. She demands he act like a man and show his face at the victim’s traditional Aboriginal burial ceremony as a last resort to some semblance of redemption. Meanwhile the actual serial killer remains at large and makes no attempt to run or hide from anybody. But as is the running theme of Jindabyne who is the real bad guy? Laura Linney the lone American in the movie headlines a cast of well-proven veterans. No contemporary actress not named Streep or Dench does “adult” quite like Linney and Jindabyne is another dazzling notch on her belt. As always Linney keeps things tense the whole way through even during the first half in which her character is fairly content; however she makes it clear that everything’s not OK despite seeming superficially so. But more than anything Linney’s Claire marks a welcome if much more dramatic return to her You Can Count on Me roots. Byrne who appeared alongside Linney in 2004’s P.S. turns in perhaps his darkest emotional performance to date. His Stewart turns into a pathetic shadow of a man towards the end with one shot at potential redemption and Byrne—an odd casting choice because he’s an Irishman playing an Aussie—really makes it stick. The rest of the largely Australian cast won’t be recognized by American viewers but they’re quite frequently employed in their native film industry and for good reason. Deborra-Lee Furness aka Mrs. Hugh Jackman especially stands out as one of the frantic newly ostracized wives. Jindabyne is director Ray Lawrence’s third film; his first was in 1985. For that reason it’s fair to say he’s Australia’s Terrence Malick. Every second of film for Lawrence like Malick is a labor of love. It shows but with Jindabyne it makes for a less enthralling—and less organic—viewing than his previous film 2001’s superb Lantana. Jindabyne is a pleasure to look at and listen to and the story—based on a short by Short Cuts author Raymond Carver—probably has a lot more to offer when read but Lawrence’s slooooow-burn technique with fade-outs in almost every spot that needs a cut is occasionally tough to sit (awake) through. Towards the end however it picks up speed and profundity and ultimately leaves your head spinning for mostly the right reasons. In other words it winds up a genuine Ray Lawrence experience which is a good thing. That said the movie is definitely not for everyone especially in the days of sequel season er summer.
Set in Sydney Australia the story revolves around Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) a police detective in his mid-40s who is married with two teenage sons. He struggles to keep his life under control but feels it slipping away from him especially after he has a fling with a woman Jane (Rachael Blake) whom he meets in a dancing class he is taking with his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong). Jane is also surviving the breakup of her marriage to Pete (Glenn Robbins) and is simply lonely. She lives next door to Nik (Vince Colosimo) and Paula (Daniela Farinacci) a young couple with three children who seem to have a strong and happy marriage even after certain events nearly tear it apart. Sonja on the other hand suspects her husband is cheating and talks to her therapist Valerie (Barbara Hershey) about it. Valerie urges Sonja to confront Leon and tell him her feelings. Meanwhile Valerie and her husband John (Geoffrey Rush) are having problems of their own trying to come to grips with the murder of their young daughter a few years before. Somehow the lives of these eight people intersect when Leon becomes embroiled in a missing persons investigation.
For the most part the ensemble cast of mostly Australian actors is quite excellent. Many might not know the fact that LaPaglia who usually plays tough Italian New York types (One Good Cop So I Married an Axe Murderer) is actually a native Australian. Hearing his lilting and natural accent is refreshing and he gives his best acting effort yet as a man in the throes of a midlife crisis. Armstrong also turns in a quiet and subtle performance as the wife Sonja who eventually understands her husband's turmoil even though it wounds her deeply. Hershey and Rush play well off of one another as the damaged couple knee-deep in the grieving process particularly Hershey who gives an interesting twist on a successful therapist spiraling into her own self-doubt and despair. She proves once again how great an actress she really is. The other supporting characters lend depth to the story with Colosimo and Farinacci as Nik and Paula standing out the most. Their intense love affair starkly contrasts the messed-up lives of the rest of the couples.
Lantana refers to a type of plant which is filled with beautiful and exotic flowers but hides a thick thorny growth underneath. The opening shot takes us from the middle of this thorny bush where we see what appears to be a body entangled in it and pans out in a strange and slow way to show a great vista (reminiscent of David Lynch's opening to Blue Velvet). This pretty much sums up the feel of the movie--strange and slow--but not always in a positive light. While the performances are all good the pacing and subject matter brings the film down. The actions of the characters aren't always enough to keep up the momentum and the only compelling parts are when the actual mystery of the investigation start to unfold. You aren't sure who's guilty and who's not and the movie keeps you guessing until the very end. Yet the meandering personal dramas begin to get stagnant. Watching dysfunctional people deal with their marriages is something we've seen many times before.