If "Jindabyne" seems familiar, that's because it's based on the great short story writer Raymond Carver's "So Much Water, So Close to Home." The tale of four guys who find a woman's corpse on a fishing trip and keep on fishing for a couple of days was a plotline in Robert Altman's 1993 Carver compilation film "Short Cuts." And the picturesque tourist town of the new movie's title, the gateway to Australia's Snowy Mountain ski district, is becoming a popular filming location; it was last the setting for the fine coming-of-age drama "Somersault."
"Jindabyne" director Ray Lawrence and adapter Beatrix Christian have expanded on Carver's story in a thoughtful and peculiarly Down Underized way. It remains primarily a study of the way men and women fail to understand each other's attitudes, but a lot of psychological back story, spiritual yearning and Australian racial politics have been added.
Most of the new ideas grow naturally enough out of the original material. But they almost invariably amplify Carver's bleak worldview, and in a film that runs for more than two hours, that adds up to an oppressive sit.
It gives "Jindabyne's" actors, especially main couple players Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney, a whole lot to grapple with, though.
Although their characters may be going through hell, the actors' joy in exploring extreme, wrenching emotions is, as they say, infectious.
But like other kinds of infections, these dark discoveries aren't always pleasant experiences.
In fact, sometimes it seems like Christian is laying it on rather thick. She never explains why Byrne's Stewart Kane, an Irish race car driver who now runs a local garage, and his American wife Claire are living in this tiny Aussie town; we just have to assume that it's to make them feel even more dislocated than they already, profoundly are.
They have a young boy, whom Claire abandoned for a while shortly after his birth, which caused her still-unwelcome mother-in-law to move south, too.
Their closest friends, a somewhat older couple named Jude and Carl (Deborra-Lee Furness and John Howard), live in a trailer with what is presumably their orphaned, half-aboriginal granddaughter, who leads the Kanes' son into various alarming acts of mischief.
Anyway, Stewart and Carl, along with younger dudes Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis) and Billy (Simon Stone), find the slain woman on the first day of their annual expedition in the remote mountains. They tie her ankle to a bush and leave her in the river, going by the logic that her corpse will keep better in water than on dry land. The men agree on a story about why they waited another two days to notify the authorities, but their real motives remain as mysterious to them as they are to the women in their lives.
Claire eventually processes this seeming act of male indifference as symbolic of her and Stewart's relationship, but her past behavior makes any moral high ground she might claim awfully slippery.
Meanwhile, that the dead girl was aboriginal throws accusations of prejudice into the growing scandal. Claire's efforts to make some kind of public amends alienate both white and black factions.
Oh, and we know who the killer is from the get-go, the kind of creepy old Outback geezer we're more accustomed to seeing in slasher junk such as "Wolf Creek" than in culturally sensitive literary adaptations. He shows up now and then to add an extra dimension of menace to the already quite fraught goings on.
Of which there are much, much more, but enough already. Can't blame Lawrence for trying to cram so much dramatic behavior into one movie; this is only his third feature (the well-regarded "Bliss" and "Lantana" were the others) in a career that has spanned more than two decades. He spends most of his time making television commercials, and in a way applies that kind of work method to this movie. Most of "Jindabyne's" shots are first takes. That gives the scenes powerful emotional immediacy, but it also results in some pretty murky imagery.
All of which once more emphasizes that this sad, searching movie is a real actors' holiday. For audiences, though, it's likely to have the opposite effect of a nice ski vacation or a fishing weekend. *