If you've read much Raymond Carver, or seen Robert Altman's

Short Cuts

, the core story of the Australian film


should be familiar: Four buddies hike into the woods for a weekend of fishing, one of them reels in a woman's corpse, and . . . well, they just keep on catching fish, putting off notifying the police so they can continue their coveted days of bonding and big trout in the outback.

Directed by Ray Lawrence, of the taut 2001 mystery Lantana, and adapted from Carver's short story "So Much Water So Close to Home," Jindabyne takes its name from the town where its characters live. The original community, nestled in Australia's Snowy Mountains, was submerged generations back when a dam was built, with the new town erected around the new lake. It's a metaphor that could easily get out of hand: suppressed feelings, ghosts, history rewritten.

But for all the potential for pretense, Lawrence will have none of it. A director with a keen eye for the telling details of relationships, Lawrence gets great work from his cast. Gabriel Byrne plays Stewart, an ex-race-car driver who now runs a garage, and whose marriage to Claire (Laura Linney) is on shaky ground even before the scandal that erupts when the men return from their trip. It is Stewart who discovered the body, unclothed, floating face down in the river, and who secured the corpse with a fishing wire so it wouldn't be carried downstream.

Jindabyne takes Carver's premise and expands on it to reveal not only a couple's imminent collapse, but a community's divisive response to the behavior of these men.

And because the young woman who is found dead is Aboriginal, a layer of racism, a cultural disconnect, is added to the mix. What if she had been white? Would Stewart have reacted with more urgency? Would his friends (John Howard, Stelios Yiakmis and Simon Stone) - all Anglo Aussies - have responded differently, done the right thing?

When news does get out about the discovery, and the fact that the buddies continued to fish for days after the body was found, the townsfolk are shocked, appalled. So is Claire, who can't believe her husband's callousness. She channels her shame and grief by trying, unsuccessfully, to console the dead girl's family.

Deliberately paced, with an eerie, country-ish score from the Australian singer/songwriter Paul Kelly, Jindabyne is definitely a mystery. But it's not about who killed the woman - audiences know that practically from the outset.

Lawrence's compelling little film pursues a deeper question: why people make the choices that they do - and how they then live with those decisions, right or wrong, weak or strong.

Jindabyne *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Ray Lawrence, written by Beatrix Christian, based on a story by Raymond Carver, photography by David Willimson, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 2 hours, 3 mins.

Stewart.......................... Gabriel Byrne

Claire. . . Laura Linney

Jude............. . . Deborra-Lee Furness

Carl. . . John Howard

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, nudity, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Five and Showcase at Ritz Center/NJEndText