Adapted for the screen by Beatrix Christian from the Raymond Carver short story "So Much Water So Close to Home" (that was also adapted for a segment of Robert Altman's Short Cuts), Jindabyne is the story of a murder that brings crisis to a small town in New South Wales. The film begins with the crime, as a grizzled white man (Chris Haywood) in his sixties stalks a pretty, lively aboriginal girl named Susan (Tatea Reilly), traps her on an isolated country road, rapes her, stabs her and throws her body in a river.
A short time later, four working-class blokes from the nearby town of Jindabyne discover the body where it has snagged in rocks after floating many miles down stream. The men are on their annual fishing trip, an excursion they look forward to all year long. Rather than immediately return to report the young girl's death to authorities, they fish as planned for a day instead. That they understand this decision is wrong is proven by their subsequent claim that their return to town was delayed when one of them injured an ankle. No one buys their story. They are shunned by their fellow white townspeople, and their homes and businesses are vandalized by Susan's aboriginal friends and family.
To the greatest extent, Jindabyne focuses on the reaction of Claire Kane (Laura Linney), whose husband Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) is one of the fisherman. Claire doesn't understand the delay, thinks it reveals a critical moral flaw in her husband, and undertakes various efforts to reach out to Susan's family, including a campaign among Jindabyne's white residents to raise money for Susan's funeral. That the aboriginal community is unassuaged by Claire's overtures speaks to the depth of racial and ethnic divide across the globe, from the Middle East to Africa to the Americas. But here, as elsewhere, the film points at a problem without really offering enlightening commentary about either underlying causes or possible solutions. Claire is correct to be offended by Stewart's selfishness and insensitivity, but her own crusade is itself insensitive and, in addition, conducted at the cost of neglecting the welfare of her fragile five-year-old son Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss).
Jindabyne is richly textured. Stewart is a former racing champion, now resigned to a grimy and meager life as the owner of a gas station. He knows few pleasures other than his annual fishing trip. Claire is both emotionally volatile and brittle. She suffered some kind of debilitation (presumably post-partum depression) right after Tom was born and left both father and child for the first 15 months of Tom's life. Tom's best friend is an obviously disturbed six-year-old Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazzaro) who is obsessed with death and convinces Tom to help her poison their school's pet guinea pig. Another of the fishermen, Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis), is dating an aboriginal woman. And another still, Billy (Simon Stone), has recently had a baby with a woman who "used to be a lesbian." In fact, the town itself has a complicated history. It once sat along the river on the floor of a valley, but was moved to higher ground in the 1960s when the valley was flooded by the erection of a hydro-electric dam. The old buildings of the original Jindabyne lie now at the bottom of a lake, a ghost town that haunts older residents and still fills conversation today.
All of this back story is fascinating. But I wasn't able to decipher what it means or how the filmmakers intend it to serve their focal narrative about morally questionable actions and the repercussions that arise when they become known. Perhaps the film wants to make a statement about society always facing away from its problems rather than toward them. Newspaper headlines and television reports excoriate the fishermen while we see not even the first instance of clamor about an investigation to find the murderer who remains menacingly at large. The film certainly illustrates how hairline cracks in the foundation of a marriage can threaten significant ruptures when shaken with unexpected and unsavory developments. But in the end, all these separate pieces fail to fit together into a satisfying whole and we are left rueful that Linney and Byrne in particular put so much into a film that leaves us wrinkle-browed, unmoved and frustrated.