Jindabyne

So, you’ve got source material from Raymond Carver. You’ve got Laura Linney. You’ve got Gabriel Byrne. What you haven’t got is a comedy. Just so we’re clear. Set in an Australian village that was flooded decades ago by a water-relocation project and repurposed as a tourist town, Jindabyne is preoccupied with sinking feelings and sub-surface agitations — and obviously unafraid of drowning in its own dignity.

In screenwriter Beatrix Christian and director Ray Lawrence’s estimation, this backcountry town is a pleasant enough place, except that everybody here seems to harbor some heavy torment, and no one ever gets to feel at ease. A murder certainly doesn’t help matters, and the victim being a young aborigine woman only makes matters worse. As for the four white recreational fishermen who discover her body in their river but keep fishing for a while before reporting it, well, you can guess: much worse.

Carver’s 1977 short story “So Much Water So Close to Home” also was fodder for Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, but this is a different enterprise altogether. It seems at once to admire the author’s sawed-off style and to want to tease his mystery out. To wit the ambiguous act of predation by which the movie opens, the plodding and unnerving silences that follow, the brooding and jittery surveys of ominous landscapes — even the deepest of Jindabyne’s woods are perforated by swaths of power lines, whose hum carries overtones of tribal disapproval. Yes, there are risks here, namely that it all will become the sort of archly grave, politically tinted picture preferred by today’s art-housers of conscience.

Thank goodness, then, for Linney and Byrne as Claire and Stewart, the couple at the center of this tale, whose marriage it tests. They both give searing but mutually encouraging performances — as Linney’s emotional intelligence and listening skills keep getting sharper, so Byrne’s melancholic heft has become truer and more nuanced. It’s a mixed blessing, in fact: By contrast to their portrayal of disturbed family dynamics, the overlaid political dynamics seem especially contrived. The movie might not work at all but for the honesty these two actors bring to their characters and to the relationship.

How a one-time champion Irish race-car driver wound up as a mechanic in New South Wales with an American wife evidently is of no concern. What matters is that Stewart’s graying at the temples and not at all happy about it; the annual long weekend of fly-fishing with the guys might have begun as a hobby, but now it’s a real need. That leaves Claire alone with her unresolved terror of motherhood (after giving birth to their son a few years ago, she fled the family for 18 months), which just so happens to have become suddenly acute: Stewart doesn’t know it, but she’s pregnant again.

This fraught atmosphere obeys the spirit of Carver, who will have you know there is such a thing as rugged frailty. Under such conditions, especially when they occur within a sunken city, repression inevitably will beget betrayal.

Having determined that the dead woman was beyond any real help, the men dawdled — yet they also colluded to contrive an excuse for their delayed reaction. Upon their return, a police officer acquaintance must issue what should be a no-brainer admonishment: “We don’t step over bodies in order to enjoy our leisure activities. Pack of bloody idiots. I’m ashamed of you. The whole town’s ashamed of you.” He lets them go, but of course the media’s waiting outside — along with the women in their lives, all appalled and deeply shaken.

For all the pains it takes to establish mood and character, Jindabyne hides under its own uneasy surfaces; it never allows enough sense of what this community really is, of what’s to be grieved when it comes apart. Instead, it tends simply to overstress the coming apart. Transitions between scenes occur with airy syncopation, in fades to black and back. Lawrence wants to let the scenes play like lolling river waters, with undercurrents of tension gathering force as the story’s gravity pulls them downstream. It’s a good instinct, but only effective as the stakes rise and clarify.

Not knowing what else to do, Claire tries to make amends with the woman’s family; Stewart only recedes into his refusal of accountability or regret. Little good comes from any of it. And still, meanwhile, isn’t there a murderer on the loose?