copyright 2008, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 50, spring 2008

Old secrets and a second chance

by Andrea Grunert

A man discovers the body of a dead young Aborigine woman in a river, but instead of reporting his discovery, he and his three friends tie down the corpse to prevent it from drifting away and continue fishing. When they arrive back home, they have to face the incomprehension and criticism of the other members of their community and the grief and anger of the Aborigines, who accuse them of racism. At first glance, Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne (Australia, 2006) is a film about unforeseen developments which affect the lives of the four men and their families. The disastrous results of their decision represent a challenge to normality and destabilize even more the already dysfunctional human relationships. It is in particular the male protagonist who is forced to examine how he defines himself as a man, a husband and father, and as a member of the community.

Lost hopes and the idea of a second chance

In adapting for the screen Raymond Carver’s short story "So Much Water So Close to Home" (which was also part of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts), Lawrence reflects on sudden decisions and their unexpected consequences in a narrative composed of multiple layers of meaning that deals with love, death, friendship and guilt. Both the literary text and the film focus on social identities, but whereas Carver’s story is located in an U.S. working-class milieu, Lawrence sets his moral tale in an Australian context characterized by the confrontation between the white community and the Aborigines. In doing so, he depicts distinct cultural spaces revealed through frequent images of the landscape — the arid desert, the mountains, and the water — images which punctuate the film.

"Jindabyne" is an Aborigine word for “valley.” Located in New South Wales, it is an isolated spot surrounded by mountains. Not unlike utopian communities, which are often represented as islands, Jindabyne, the town where the protagonists live, is a place that has been given a second chance: the original town was flooded in the early 1960s to make way for a dam. A closed space haunted by the ghosts of an unresolved past, it becomes a metaphor for dystopia. It is, however, the question of a second chance in the lives of the characters which Lawrence retraces in both individual and social terms. The image of the town under the water is used for metonymic ends in a film which, by creating an atmosphere of tension and mystery, brings to the surface old secrets, anxieties and contradictory feelings of guilt and desire.

Stewart Kane, the film’s protagonist, played by the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, is the man who discovers the body. He belongs to the working-class, owns a garage, is married and the father of a young son. The first shots give insights into his family life, showing him as a loving and caring father. He is a decent man who is constantly being forced to mediate between his wife and overbearing mother. Behind the mask of the warm-hearted father, husband and friend, the film reveals his weakness and a darker, more violent side. His look is sullen when he discovers that his temples have turned grey, and later on he dyes them. Various newspaper clippings pinned to a wall in his office allude to his past as a motor-racing driver, reminding him of days of vanished glory, insignificant though this glory may have been. These brief moments in which the actor’s face expresses the character’s fears and frustrations are symptoms of a life with no great expectations or rewards.

When Stewart discovers the woman's corpse, he panics, screams and makes the sign of the cross several times. The following morning, however, he is the first one to continue fishing as if nothing has happened. Mired in a selfish and arrogant attitude, Stewart cannot understand his wife Claire’s concern when she asks him to explain his behaviour. It seems that the only way he can handle the conflict is by becoming aggressive. It was his idea to tie down the body with a fishing line, which cut into the dead woman’s ankle. Unable to admit the awfulness of this act, Stewart is presented as a flawed, average character who, in Claire’s words, is "piss weak." In terms of acting, Byrne's sense of presence and natural charm create sympathy with the character of Stuart Kane, especially during the dinner the night before the departure of the fishing party. However, the actor’s performance also reveals inner contradictions in Stewart’s nature, making of the male protagonist a contradictory character, a human being caught between indifference and guilt who faces a dilemma the viewer can identify with.

A discourse on sex and death

The film uses Stewart's characterization in a discourse on sex and gender in which doubts are cast not least on his masculinity. His authority at home is questioned, revealing a crisis of male identity which reverses the power structure established in the opening sequence and repeated at other points in the film. Jindabyne starts with a sequence in which the killer/rapist observes his victim, whose dead body Stewart will later discover. The film explores relations between (male) power, sex and death in a number of sequences which show women reduced to the status of objects by a male’s stare and exposed to alienation, oppression and violence. For Stewart, who isn’t aware right away that the "thing" in the water is a human body, it is at first an object which arouses his curiosity. After he has this first panicky reaction, for him and his fishing friends the naked female body is reduced almost irrevocably to an object, and moreover one which can be ignored. Apparently indifferent to the corpse still floating in the water, the four anglers proudly take pictures of each other and their catch. The editing establishes a repelling and highly disturbing connection between the dead human body and the fishing sequences, a connection which, once again, is created by our and the characters' gaze. For example, one shot shows Stewart’s face in close-up staring at something and, in the following close-up, we discover the object of his macabre attention: a fish thrown on the rocks, where it desperately flaps its gills. During the night, Stewart returns to the body, turns the corpse’s face towards him and looks at the woman with a mixture of sadness and fear.

A personal tension between Stewart and Claire, as well as in other relationships, stands out from the very first sequences. Almost everybody has a demon to fight. As the protagonists, Stewart and Claire are at the centre of this discourse on alienation and shattered identities. When confronted with the facts about the body at the fishing site, Claire reacts violently, refusing to remain passive and act as a victim herself. Laura Linney’s fine performance — the tension in her body, the cold fury in her eyes and the severity in her voice — reveal the character’s innermost feelings. She tries to persuade her friends to accept their responsibilities as human beings towards the Aborigines. Her way of dealing with the situation — particularly her visit to the mortuary — suggests a masochistic attitude, as if her concern for the dead young woman and her family is in part the result of very personal feelings and a lingering sense of guilt. Following a nervous breakdown, Claire once abandoned her new-born son, and her failure as a mother haunts her and catches up with her again when her little boy Tom almost drowns. Being pregnant, she decides to have an abortion when, in the course of the film, she discovers she is pregnant. For Claire, the present situation is a journey back to this past, a means to overcome it and to reconsider decisions.

An inner journey

The opening credits are written over a rusty barbed-wire fence across the Australian outback. This fence marks a boundary, expressing very clearly a warning of unknown territory beyond. The landscape thus becomes the setting for an inner journey and a metaphor for the inner world of secrets, hidden fears and suppressed desires. If Jindabyne is presented as a modern frontier town, the frequent images of the landscape exposed under a homogeneous light show wide open spaces of breathtaking beauty, which the film ironically develops not as promises of freedom and liberty but instead signifiers of mere bleakness. Visually, the film establishes references to dysfunctional lives and a feeling of mystery and violence at both the individual and the social level. In interior shot, human bodies and rooms are often plunged into darkness and fragmented by shadows and half-shadows. Put into contrast with the images of the majestic landscape, the scenes of cluttered rooms which narrow the gaze reveal the dark and ugly side of the characters and of society. Such an aesthetics of fragmentation suggest the inner torment of the characters, which is a projection of social and historical failure. The malevolent forces, represented by the killer, lurk under the surface of normality and are part of it. The killer is an unsuspected member of the community whom Claire meets at church. Their paths cross several times: she almost runs into the killer’s car, he tries to push her car off the road as he did with that of his Aborigine victim. Claire sees him once again, watching the smoking-out funeral from a distance. Evoking the randomness of life and death, the last shots show the killer in his car: he waits for another victim when he is suddenly stung by a wasp.

Images of death and gothic mystery are closely connected with the two children who appear in the film: Tom, Stewart’s and Claire’s son and Caylin-Calandria, the granddaughter of Carl and Jude. In the relationship between the two children, the girl commands. Saddened and disturbed by her mother’s death, the little girl engages Tom in morbid play, such as the sacrifice of their schoolmates’ guinea pig to dark forces. She also seems to be tempted to let the boy drown but decides to save him.

Inspired by an overwhelming feeling of mystery, Jindabyne is a thriller in which the viewer is aware of the killer’s identity from the very beginning. In Lantana, Lawrence’s previous film, the discovery of a dead body also led to an exploration and portrayal of human behaviour. That film, however, centred around the quest for the truth and for the culprit, whose identity was not revealed until the end. In Jindabyne, the search for the killer is replaced by the inner journey the protagonists have to undertake. The tension is not created through the reconstruction of events presented in a succession of flashbacks as in Lantana, but emerges from the latent violence and from horrifying moments (for example, the sequence in which Stewart’s nose is broken). It stems from the pain written on the faces and from defiant bodies, from sometimes unexpected reactions in a sequence of events, and from the intensity of the acting.

Far from being a Manichean moral tale, Jindabyne does not condemn the decision (or non-decision) of the four men to continue fishing. Caught in a moral dilemma, the protagonists resort to excuses for justifying their conduct: they just arrived after a long trip, the woman is dead and nothing can be done for her anymore. The fact that Carl, the eldest of the men, is slightly injured offers another reason to stay. If they are not punished for their manifest disregard of the law, the four men have to face the reproaches of the local chief of police, of some of their fellows, and of the Aborigines who are not satisfied with their evasive explanations. The Aborigine residents accuse Stewart and his friends of being racists, in the belief that their indifference to the dead woman is due to their feeling of superiority over an indigenous Australian, who is, moreover, a woman. Indeed, the fence in the arid Australian landscape also reminds the viewer of the continent’s violent colonial past.

It is useful to consider how Carver's story, Altman's film Short Cuts, and Jindabyne establish different social emphases. Carver’s original story depicts a distinctive working-class world. Altman's Short Cuts sketches a different social milieu: the protagonists of his film belong to the Californian upper- and middle-class suburbia. Short Cuts' narrative broadens the cultural, social and economic context pointing to ecological problems and the failure of communication in a country inflated by pictures. In Altman’s film the fishing expedition becomes part of a plural text dealing with individual and collective crises in contemporary United States. In Jindabyne the theme of political and social identity is replaced by racial conflict. In Carver's story, the dead woman is white, but in the film she is an Aborigine. The men's behaviour also reveals their complete ignorance of the beliefs and customs of the Aborigine community living on the outskirts of the town. There seems to be no communication between the two groups. Jindabyne's allusive images which aim to explore different nuances of feelings serve perfectly the idea of difficult, often fragile, human relationships.

Facing a repressed past

The film can be criticized for using a conventional view of Aborigines. They remain extras and important only with respect to their function for the Whites. Belonging to an unknown, archaic world as presented in the pictures of the landscape, they are different and the symbolic Other through which the protagonists are mirrored. They also constitute a homogeneous group, faithful to tradition, and contrasted to the fragmented white community. In its conclusion, the film includes images of the wake after the woman's burial known as "smoking-out ceremony," in which smoke from native plants is used to take away the bad spirits. Lawrence, however, does not emphasize a nostalgic view of a community that now belongs to the past; instead he tries to explore attitudes towards the colonial past from his own standpoint as a white Australian. For example, he presents the killer’s victim as a modern young woman who is on her way to a pop music concert when she meets her murder.

Jindayne also utilizes a subtext which deepens the discourse on colonialism by referring to Stewart’s Irish origins. These references are made not only through Gabriel Byrne’s brogue but also in the music and the representation of Irish Catholic traditions. Both Stewart and Claire are foreigners and therefore alienated from normalcy. Dialogue and accent reveal Claire as American. The fact that she hides her pregnancy from Stewart and does not discuss seeking an abortion is mainly explained in individual and dramatic terms, stemming from her fear of undergoing another postpartum depression. Stewart’s hostility and his total failure to understand her feelings probably also contribute to her decision. The script does not make clear if his position as a Roman Catholic on abortion is another reason for her to remain silent. Claire’s migration background is linked with the film’s colonial subtext. Her origins evoke the American frontier and its imaginary line between nature and civilization, tradition and modernity, which she or we may relate to the conquest of Australia as another frontier experience overshadowed by the violent encounter of two cultures which resulted in a genocide.

It is, however, Stewart’s past which becomes an individual and collective signifier going beyond the silver screen. By multiplying visual and dramatic references to Ireland, Lawrence hints at a different experience of colonial oppression. An intertextual link with the actor’s previous roles evoking the Irish as the dark or inferior Other is not made explicit, but it is nevertheless present and supports Stewart’s own feelings of guilt and inferiority in a nexus of emotions and politics. At the end, Stewart expresses feelings of doubt and shame and agrees to accept responsibility for his actions and to ask the Aborigines for forgiveness. Set in its social and cultural context, the small white community is thus a microcosm which reflects contemporary Australia’s inability to reconcile its past with its future. The individual fates of the characters reveal the fears hinted at by the threatening landscape and bring to the surface suppressed feelings of guilt.

This sense of the landscape's threat is reinforced by a haunting melody that is reminiscent of the way music was used in Picnic at Hanging Rock, another Australian film with terror as an important motif. If Australia’s colonial past and the abuse and killing of the indigenous people remain a traumatic subject, numerous Australian films have dealt with the continent’s history and with racial divisions in contemporary Australia. Gillian Armstrong’s romantic drama Oscar and Lucinda (1998) depicts the encounter of the two cultures — European and Aboriginal — in a very short but highly telling moment: the Aborigines are slaughtered by the white intruder. Films such as Jedda (Charles Chauvel, 1955), Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971) The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi, 1978), The Fringe Dwellers (Bruce Beresford, 1986), Deadheart (Nick Parsons, 1996) or Yolngu Boy (Stephen Johnson, 2001) focus on discrimination and on alienation and attempt to name Australian racism for what it is. In these films preoccupied with the clash between two cultures, the Aborigines appear as the rejected Other of the whites. In Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) Philip Noyce approaches a taboo subject: the stolen generation of the 1930s, children taken from their Aboriginal mothers to be placed in Christian missions and in white families where they often were abused. The film’s young protagonists are victims of an inhuman policy based on the feeling of white superiority. But the little girls are not reduced to the stereotypical image of the victimized Other: they manage to escape from the mission. The Aboriginal protagonist of Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002) isn’t a victim either but, dispensing rough justice among the whites, becomes the active agent in a revenge story in which the traditional roles of master and servant are reversed. De Heer’s recent production Ten Canoes (2007) is inspired by Aborigine tales and uses Aborigines as protagonists while excluding white characters altogether. Nevertheless, none of the filmmakers mentioned above are Aborigines and their films offer inevitably the point of view of the whites as critical it might be.

Jindabyne’s resigned ending offers no hope, but through its subtext, it reminds us of an aesthetic "strategy of blur," in which notions of past and present, oppressor and oppressed are not opposed but inextricably intertwined. Referring to a society in which the traumas of the colonial past are far from having been resolved, Lawrence points out the limitations of merely offering social criticism by developing a film narrative based on emotions and not just clear-cut political discourse.

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