My least favorite Robert Altman film, Short Cuts, hijacked a bunch of Raymond Carver short stories and turned them into a snickering jab at a cheating, lying and lushing Los Angeles. Dumping the Pacific Northwest landscape so crucial to Carver’s lachrymose sensibility wasn’t the problem — you can move a story to outer space and still keep faith with its spirit. But Altman took a wrecking ball to the bleak compassion with which Carver watched over his floundering working-class protagonists and replaced it with a shrill malice that kept faith only with the director’s own worst self.

That was in 1993, and so far as I know, no one has taken another serious crack at bringing Carver’s Chekhovian minimalism to the big screen until now. With Jindabyne, Australian director Ray Lawrence takes far bigger liberties with Carver, yet manages to stay closer to the letter and spirit of his work. Sensitively adapted by Beatrix Christian from the story “So Much Water So Close to Home” (which Altman also used in his film), Jindabyne shifts Carver’s setting to the equally majestic — if far more stark — landscape of rural Australia. Buried within the movie is a sharp dissection of race and gender in a corner of New South Wales where whites and Aborigines cohabit in mutual unease. But you needn’t roll your eyes: Jindabyne wears its class politics lightly, weaving them into a ghost story about the intimate connection between how we treat our living and our dead that will hover around your shoulders long after you leave the theater.

A prolific maker of commercials, Lawrence has also been called the Ridley Scott of Australia, but you won’t see either of these influences in this harshly lyrical mood piece, even though it hinges on the murder of a young Aboriginal girl by a grizzled serial killer (Chris Haywood). He’s one kind of evil spirit, but others less tangible and seemingly more pedestrian rise to the surface when four local men on a weekend fishing trip discover the girl’s bloated body floating in a scenic river. Despite their initial horror, the men carry on with their fishing, jubilantly landing a few whoppers before they finally alert the local police. As the town recoils from their heedlessness, a rift opens up, or more precisely, deepens between the men and their wives.

If the tale Jindabyne tells were just about the eternal incomprehension between expressive women and repressed men, the movie would be merely glib. But in the growing estrangement of one tightly wound American transplant, Claire (Laura Linney), from her laconic husband, Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), past sins, losses and unfulfilled dreams rise up like malevolent specters to haunt this troubled pair and find echoes in the unions that surround them. They make an exquisitely agonized couple — Byrne, with his rheumy, disappointed eyes, and Linney, unflattered by makeup and tossing restlessly in the private pain Claire channels into outrage over the mulish efforts of her spouse, a former race-car champion, to keep a lid on his emotions. The more Claire crashes around like a wounded bull in a china shop, trying to patch things up with the dead girl’s grieving relatives, whose steady, silent stares make it clear they’re not so easily appeased, the more Stewart retreats into himself and the company of his buddies, stewing in their own conspiracy of silence. In the end, as often happens at the movies, it’s the naive and the underaged who force the issue.

Jindabyne moves slowly and deliberately, its dialogue as spare and lanky as Carver’s own pared-down prose. The austere beauty of the landscape, shot in natural light and heightened by a keening native score, offers both a lament for what’s been lost and a painfully halting hymn to the faint possibility of reconciliation and community. Don’t be lulled: The fierce background hum of electricity pylons, a swiftly administered punch in the ribs of a penitent, and the final image of a man furiously slapping away a wasp lash us with a shocking reminder that sins of omission cause injury just as surely as those of commission, and that evil never dies. Carver would kvell.

JINDABYNE | Directed by RAY LAWRENCE | Written by BEATRIX CHRISTIAN | Based on the short story “SO MUCH WATER SO CLOSE TO HOME” by RAYMOND CARVER | Produced by CATHERINE JARMAN | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | Sunset 5, Monica 4-Plex and Rialto

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Click here for Scott Foundas' interview with director Ray Lawrence

Jindabyne Trailer
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