I look at the creek. I’m right in it, eyes open, face down, staring at the moss on the bottom, dead.
Raymond Carver, “So Much Water So Close To Home”
When Claire, the narrator of Raymond Carver’s quietly powerful short story, imagines herself to be the dead woman that her husband has found in a river, it’s a moment of condemnation and empathy. In Carver’s “So Much Water So Close To Home”, and in the film adaptation, Jindabyne (by Australian director Ray Lawrence) Claire’s husband chooses to continue fishing with his mates, despite having discovered the murdered woman floating downstream.
It’s this choice—to keep fishing—that provides the central ethical conundrum and terrific moral ambiguity in both story and film. But in Jindabyne the murdered girl is not just some young woman from out of town, she’s also Aboriginal. Lawrence, and screenwriter Beatrix Christian’s decision to include issues of race in this considerably extrapolated version of Carver’s story shifts the focus considerably. Several reviews have admired Jindabyne’s engagement with the theme of reconciliation, but few have examined precisely how this actually functions in the film.
Christian explores the fallout from the four men’s choice to “fish over a dead girl’s body” as the Jindabyne newspapers put it. For most of the film we closely follow the emotional and ethical struggles of our protagonists: Claire (Laura Linney) who cannot come to terms with what her husband Stuart (Gabriel Byrne) has done. Much of this material—Claire’s secret, unwanted pregnancy, her past postnatal depression; Stuart’s midlife crisis (he dyes his greying hair, leers at young women, sympathises with some nearby blokes who call his wife “bitch”)—seems hackneyed (male sexual power and mateship versus female sensitivity). Yet, as many reviews have noted, Jindabyne skilfully avoid histrionics by sharply cauterising painful conversations at crucial points. But when the film broaches the huge and complicated matter of reconciliation, it falters, drawing a precarious bow from the collusion of the men (who lie to cover their negligence) to comment on Australia’s failure to confront and make amends for the its indigenous people’s suffering.
Throughout Jindabyne we learn little about the murdered woman—Susan—or her family: the scenes dealing with their “sorry business” and their pain remain sketches. As the tensions build in Jindabyne, the film seems at first to resist trite conclusions. Jude (Deborah Lee Furness) seethes with angry grief over her daughter’s death, withdrawing her love for the surviving grandchild (whose cruel behaviour presumably stems from her own sorrow). Yet paradoxically Jude is the least troubled by the fishing incident, despite (or because of) her husband’s involvement. “Move on” she exhorts Claire; “let it heal over”, though her own brittle anger reveals she hasn’t managed this herself. This complexity is welcome, and true, for grief isn’t something we “get over”. Claire, the moral centre of this film copes with her disquiet by frantically trying to make amends for her husband’s negligence. But the authenticity of her attempts at reparation are muddied by her own deceptions.
However this promise of complexity, confronting moral ambiguity and lack of closure, is undermined by a hollow resolution. Once all the signposts about the film’s conclusion begin to appear, the film loses all of its power. Having so far resisted neat homilies on personal conflict, the film invites the audience to contemplate the various human responses to an act that resists easy moral judgement. But this central conundrum is never fully realised, and when Claire and her friends gatecrash Susan’s memorial, all this good work goes to waste.
Psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva contemplated the appropriate aesthetic response to events that overturn and tax our moral universe. She identifies, in artistic responses to the Second World War and the Holocaust, “an aesthetics of awkwardness” and a “noncathartic representation” (Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia). Without comparing Aboriginal deaths and displacement to these events, it does seem that certain traumatic histories resist redemptive closure, and do not conform to Western (and Christian) notions of catharsis as resolution. Jindabyne suffers from trying to iron out all its awkwardness, from introducing a catharsis that doesn’t emerge organically from the central concerns of the film. What Jindabyne suggests in its penultimate scene—an Aboriginal funeral ritual—is that white people’s engagement with indigenous culture might be a form of reconciliation. But let’s examine what happens in this episode.
Undoubtedly, Aboriginal “sorry business”, like any community’s grieving, is an intensely private affair. But American Claire is undaunted, or ignorant of this. Impelled to make amends for her husband’s act, she arrives at the bushland memorial of the murdered girl and stands on its periphery. If Claire can just bear witness, it seems she might somehow right some of the wrong. The four men who went fishing have become town pariahs, accused of “white hate crimes”—graffiti that calls up a complex history of race relations barely touched on in the film. Three of these men have a sudden, inexplicable change of heart and also appear at the ceremony. (Given their previous reluctance to admit their wrongdoing we expect to be shown how they reached this decision, but we’re not.) Now all our central characters have invited themselves into what is presumably a sacred space. Stuart is slapped and spat on by an insulted elder, but eventually stands by his wife and whispers, “I want you to come home Claire”. Her longing look suggests much is forgiven, but why? What has happened, apart from this Aboriginal ritual at which Claire and her friends are merely spectators? While the smoking ceremony proceeds, Jude arrives with her granddaughter. (Again we’re not shown why, or how this came about.) They have their first moment of harmony, banishing their own “bad spirits”, saying, “be gone”.
There is something badly wrong with this sequence: both as a resolution to the film’s many strands of considerable conflict and, as several reviewers see it, as a metaphor for reconciliation. As the white onlookers observe the ceremony, we sense their longing for a meaningful communal ritual of their own. Unable to gain solace from their previous attempts (a barbecue that descends into a fight, an Irish Catholic rite), these suffering characters hijack the Aboriginal ritual, which conveniently functions as the required “profound” event to propel their catharses. At no point are we invited to understand the particular significance and meaning of this ritual for its black participants because we’re given little insight into the texture of their lives, or the particularity of their suffering. A syrupy English song, sung by the murdered girl’s relative is intentionally moving, but seems included for a (white) audience to better interpret the emotion of this scene. As viewers we are always positioned with the film’s central characters—as outsiders looking at a generalised scene of Aboriginality.
Because she was Aboriginal, Susan’s death has far greater symbolic meaning than the unknown victim does in Carver’s story. Her memorial offers us no genuine insight into how the film’s central characters have mysteriously resolved their considerable conflict. Consequently it seems a superficial display of indigenous mysticism for the purpose of driving a formulaic white catharsis. If reconciliation is about adopting “colourful”, “mystical” or “deep” Aboriginal practices to provide meaning, profundity and healing for a spiritually bankrupt white culture then we have a long way to go. Unlike Carver’s narrator, who imagines herself in the murdered woman’s place, dead in the water, the characters in Jindabyne remain tourists on the edge of Aboriginal culture, too focused on their own concerns to get “right in it. Eyes open”, to wade in deep. In the best two lines, the film sums up its lost opportunities. Claire offers the grieving family money for the funeral, assuring them, “It’s not charity”. And they respond, “You buying something then?”
Jindabyne, director Ray Lawrence, screenplay Beatrix Christian, April Films
This review was commissioned by Open City Inc for RealTime 76, Dec 2006-Jan 2007