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.
Based on the life of New York City police detective Vincent LaMarca City by the Sea vacillates between a true-crime mystery and a family drama. As Vincent (De Niro) investigates the murder of a Long Beach N.Y. drug dealer it becomes painfully clear that his estranged son junkie Joey (James Franco) known on the street as Joey Nova is the prime suspect. Vincent is of course taken off the case but when his partner is killed while pursuing Joey the search becomes the Long Beach police department's top priority--and saving his son from a police department eager for cop-killer blood becomes Vincent's. The fact that Vincent discovers that he has a grandson Angelo doesn't help the situation especially when Joey's supposedly clean ex-junkie girlfriend (Eliza Dushku) leaves the kid at Vincent's apartment when she goes to buy cigarettes and fails to return. Vincent who's always defined himself against his criminal father finds himself forced to decide whether he's a cop or a father and grandfather first a quandary that naturally leads to some pretty compelling if slightly melodramatic scenes for De Niro. Interestingly despite the somber subject matter and the dramatic tone the film still manages a few lighthearted moments which really save it from the pitfalls of its own seriousness.
Sometimes a great cast can make even a mediocre film good and that's what happens in City by the Sea. Even though the dialogue they're given to work with isn't always completely natural--in fact sometimes it's downright contrived--the cast still manages to create a compelling final product. You just can't go wrong with De Niro as a hardened streetwise emotionally distant cop and he makes everyone opposite him look great especially relative newcomer Franco (whose performance as a young James Dean in TNT's James Dean earned him some critical kudos of his own). The young actor swaggers onto the scene like a very young Bob Dylan a hollow-body vintage guitar slung across his back. Of course he's selling it for drugs not heading for a gig. Patti LuPone really sinks her teeth--and catty claws--into her role as LaMarca's bitter ex-wife creating some of the film's most dynamic scenes while Frances McDormand lends her subtly expressive style to the most emotional moments as De Niro's sometime girlfriend Michelle.
Director Michael Caton-Jones delves into the dark side of his imagination with images of a desolate Long Beach: graffiti-covered walls crumbling casinos and a rickety boardwalk--all the detritus of a once-thriving tourist destination. In this grim setting Joey wanders virtually empty streets and beaches where as a child he played happily; meanwhile in Manhattan Vincent is wandering his streets in much the same way. It's an interesting device Caton-Jones uses to show the similarities between the two men and it's as effective at establishing their relationship as the relatively few scenes they have together. At moments like this when the film is making its emotional impact visually it shines; unfortunately City by the Sea relies a little too often on its average dialogue and does a little too much telling and not enough showing.