Director: Ray Lawrence
Writers” Raymond Carver, Beatrix Christian
Rated R. Australia. 123 minutes. English.
Starring Laura Linney, Gabriel Byrne
Imagine a 37 year old guy whose first film earns a slew of Oscar nominations and wins for best picture and director. He then waits sixteen years to make his second film, which earns another slew of nominations and also wins best picture and director. He then waits five more years to make his third film, which garners another round of nominations, including best picture and director. Thirty-six nominations for his only three films made over twenty-one years. In the words of Butch and Sundance- who IS this guy? Ray Lawrence is this guy, and he has had that level of success and recognition in his native Australia. His third film, Jindabyne, not the best of the three (that would be Lantana), is his most ambitious and a stunning achievement.
Raymond Carver’s classic short story "So Much Water. So Close to Home" has been done before- as one of Robert Altman’s long list of over-rated films- "Short Cuts." Jindabyne is the Australian rendering of this story by Lawrence and his screenwriter Beatrix Christian. When four buddies trek into the Australian outback for an annual fishing expedition, they find the corpse of a young, murdered Aborigine woman floating in their river. Initially stunned and upset, they ultimately decide to secure the body so it won’t float away, and then to continue with their weekend. After finally alerting the police, they return home to a shocked and condemning town, especially the infuriated Aborigines who live there.
For Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), an Irishman who has given up auto racing to run a garage and raise a family, public opprobrium is the least of his problems. Claire (Laura Linney), his uncomprehending and infuriated wife insists on exploring how this could happen. Stewart defends himself from her judgments and anger by turning the tables on her and linking it to her previous, chronic, post-partum depression- when she abandoned the family after the birth of their son. And that time, Stewart’s mother stepped into care for the baby. Since then, Stweart’s mother has continued to play an excessively intrusive role in the life of this family. What happened at the river only excacerbates old wounds on all sides.
Carl (John Howard), Stewart’s good friend and fellow fisherman, and his wife Jude (Deborra-Lee Furness) are also dealing with the town’s condemnation, but they have more immediate problems. Their daughter has died of breast cancer and they’re raising a young granddaughter unable to mourn her mother and with a morbid and dangerous fascination with death. The two other fishing buddies find their love lives pushed to the brink. What happened at the river is straining the town and straining four sets of relationships.
I don’t know if you can be judged an auteur after three movies, but all of Lawrence’s films share certain themes and motifs. All begin with a death (or almost death) that shakes families and relationships. But these relationships were ailing before the tragedy. The passing of the years and our human imperfections take their toll on intimacy. And Lawrence is fascinated with how flawed relationships might survive and endure the inevitable hardships and disappointments that come with time. As he has said, "marriages are the hardest relationships to make work through the years, and yet there’s nothing more important than trying to see them through." All of his films give us relationships that have solid foundations, but it’s unclear whether that alone will be enough.
For Lawrence, the most elementary source of problems and the most elementary obstacle to overcoming them is communication. In particular, he delves into how males and females have different, and at times incompatible, forms of communicating. It’s not simply that men have more trouble expressing their feelings, that we’re more defensive, fragile, and vulnerable about our imperfections and failures. It’s also that the types of intimacy women require threatens the basic emotional structures of men’s psyches. And the result is more than a communications gap. It is, rather, that different modes of communication can frustrate and infuriate a partner. If the linguist Deborah Tannen were also a gifted filmmaker- she might be Ray Lawrence.
But Lawrence never simplifies the male-female axis. In "Jindabyne" there are male characters whose sensibility and communication modes are more "female" than some of the women in the film. And Lawrence further complicates and skews generalizations by bringing in the generational variable. As in Lantana, it is a young couple whose foundation is the simple bedrock of trust and honesty that can better navigate the shoals of communication problems.
Lawrence and Christian delve into another communication gap- race. The disrespect shown the young girl’s corpse further polarizes the races. But within both the white and aborigine communities there are forces seeking to bridge that gap as well those resigned to its inevitability. Communication is fraught with defensiveness, suspicion and recrimination. Yet, as with marriage, Lawrence is a hopeful romantic.
If his underlying values are traditional, his method of working is anything but. He receives full creative control over his films. Yet they’re invariably on schedule and budget. Lawrence achieves a speed and economy of filmmaking by using only natural light during day scenes, minimal rehearsals, almost no make-up, and seldom shooting more than one take. His reasons are less commercial than artistic. He believes that actors achieve their best work when not having to wait around for intrusive lighting, when not focused on make-up and costume, and when the performance is at its rawest and most unrehearsed. His films are characterized by acting that’s as good as it gets.
By the end of his films- this idiosyncratic style, complex plotting, and core values about intimacy produce a combination of exhaustion, well-being, and a bit of unease. At the conclusion of "Jindabyne," while Lawrence’s torturous journey has given more than a few rays of hope, we’re still reminded that there’s a killer out there. The world isn’t a very safe place. Our families and lives can be shattered by malevolence or bad luck. All the more reason to fight through the barriers of miscommunication and hold tight to those who love us and those we love. While hardly new, Lawrence’s vision of finding the compassion and patience to work on the hard stuff will always be compelling in the hands of such a gifted teller of stories.