Lantana, Ray Lawrence’s previous movie, is one of those rare creations that gets better the more you watch it. The painful reality of the situation, that devastating ironic twist, the human emotions… It’s like dropping a stone in a lake, and repeated viewings enable you to spot the point the stone dropped and follow the course of each ripple. Jindabyne, Lawrence’s follow-up, thus has a lot of expectation riding on its shoulder. Happily, it’s every bit as good as you’d hope. Like Lantana — which was essentially a relationship drama masquerading as a murder investigation, or possibly vice versa — Jindabyne also straddles genres to bring a new perspective to the human condition. Once again, the focus is on relationships. Once again though, that would be too easy so, once again, Lawrence uses death as the catalyst. A body of a young woman is abandoned in a river by her murderer and later discovered in a fishing pool by Stewart (Gabriel Byrne). He and three friends are in the Snowy Mountains on their annual fishing weekend. It’s too late to trek back to report the body so they secure it and retire in subdued fashion. The following morning… well, it’s a long way back, there’s nothing they can do, they’ll be leaving the following day anyway…would it really be such a problem to just report the find when they head home?
Inevitably, the truth comes out after they finally report the body and the backlash is overwhelming. Their partners cannot understand how they could have left the girl like that, the public want some form of retribution, yet the men can’t understand the problem. Indeed, with Lawrence’s handling of their decision, it doesn’t seem so outrageous to the viewer either. Carl (John Howard) had turned his ankle, Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis) and Billy (Simon Stone) had been drinking, Stewart couldn’t leave them without a car… What was the harm exactly? As it transpires, the harm is not standard, broad stroke movie recriminations followed by large-scale glossy redemption. It’s flawed, painful, petty and heartbreakingly human. It’s also superbly acted and conceived. Leading the way is Stewart’s wife Claire (Laura Linney). If Stewart is unable to understand the strength of public opinion, Claire is even less able to understand the callousness of her husband. His actions leave her confused by him but also feeling she must protect him and make amends for his actions but, in doing so, she risks setting herself against Stewart and her friends — also the partners of the other men involved — who think that burying it all as soon as possible is the best approach. Claire’s inner turmoil then will lead to a huge sacrifice but it clearly means more to Claire than seems to make sense — until Lawrence starts revealing her history to add increasing degrees of understanding to the situation.
It’s the different reactions, the questions of loyalty, the small snapshots of past activities and the reality of the stilted dialogue and stuttering emotions that sets Jindabyne far above the crowd. This is a film of poignant beauty and tortured hearts and it’s exquisite. It’s also nigh unbearable, of course, like someone has dropped a camera into a real situation. However, due to the quality of the performances, you’ll be unable to look away. If that sounds bleak, well, yes, it is although there is humour here, and it’s borne out of real situations. However, like the deliberately flooded old town of Jindabyne, the most interesting things are what lie below the surface and Lawrence is an absolute master at this sort of thing. He peels away the layers to shed light on his characters but it never feels like an obvious device or heavy-handed cod psychology. It just feels real. Even a further brush with the murderer — as serial killer’s neighbours always say, he really doesn’t look the type — is mundane and matter-of-fact, and probably all the more alarming for it. The final scene possibly takes one step too far and flirts with a sense of sentimentality that jars a little with what’s gone before but it’s the only such moment in an otherwise stunning film. Byrne and, particularly, Linney are magnificent as well, which alone should be reason enough to see Jindabyne. As it happens, it’s one of two reasons to see Jindabyne, the other being that it’s just a bloody brilliant film.