It's Hard to Top Robert Altman

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007

Sometimes, the sincerest form of tribute is inferiority.

Watching the Australian film "Jindabyne," one soon embraces the conclusion: Robert Altman -- God rest his legacy -- did this work better. And with fewer brush strokes.

"Jindabyne" transmogrifies a Raymond Carver short story into a Down Under epic that involves a waterlogged cadaver, a lot of angry Aborigines and a central character (played by Laura Linney) who seems to have more in common with a Sally Field-type heroine than the tortured souls you encounter in Carverdom.

The movie, though, about a fishing trip that goes horribly awry, will ring familiar to those who have seen Altman's superior "Short Cuts," a multi-plotted tribute to Carver's works that includes this story segment. In that 1993 film, Stuart and his buddies discover the body of a young woman in their fishing spot. The men's refusal to interrupt their sport -- as a civic concession of sorts, they tether the body so it won't wash away -- becomes their moral undoing. In the eyes of Stuart's appalled wife, Stuart's churlishness makes him as guilty as the woman's murderer. And their fellow citizens from the town of Jindabyne seem to agree.

True to the spirit of its source material -- Carver's deft, cruel "So Much Water So Close to Home" -- Altman's segment explores the tear in trust between two people, the alarming fissure that can rend a relationship forever. And Altman's version reaches us more deeply as a subplot than "Jindabyne" does as a full-blown feature.

Directed by Ray Lawrence from a script by Beatrix Christian, "Jindabyne" transplants the book's American Northwest setting to the Outback. The movie, which stars Gabriel Byrne as Stewart (as his name is now spelled), revisits the fishing misadventure but with a cultural twist: The dead woman, who was raped and killed, turns out to be an Aborigine. So Stewart must contend not only with a mortified wife (Linney's Claire) when he gets home, but also the righteous fury of his town's aboriginal community.

Suddenly he's a pariah on more levels than he can even comprehend.

The notion of a dead woman in the eye of an ever-rippling tempest is a bold and intriguing idea, and, in better hands, it could have made for a powerful movie. Unfortunately, "Jindabyne" is a victim of its own over-ambition. It practically overflows with all the subsidiary themes it's compelled to explore, from racism and provincialism to the baffling disconnect between men and women.

Structurally, "Jindabyne" is just as unsatisfying, shifting abruptly and inorganically from thriller mode -- early on, we witness the victim's last moments and learn the assailant's identity -- to the aforementioned misadventure in the mountains. It then becomes a tense family saga between Stewart and Claire, which is the main event in Carver's 24-page tale. Then the film settles in for a far-reaching morality tale that pits Anglo and Aborigine communities against each other.

Despite Linney's authoritative performance, Claire -- who increasingly shoulders the controversy swirling around her husband -- is too schematic a creation. Although she starts off emotionally brittle and flawed, she becomes rapidly elevated into a paragon of righteous morality -- in the kind of endearing character arc the late Carver never would have stomached. Her bid to bridge both communities feels like the worst kind of Hollywood concession. We can almost feel a patch of golden redemption coming on, with Anglo Aussies, Aborigines and a triumphant Claire framed against the Australian landscape.

Hallelujah humanity!

And as Stewart -- a loving father with a gentle, assuring voice -- Byrne sweetens his character so much that we're not sure what to make of him. His character's moral ambiguity doesn't deepen so much as blunt the tension between husband and wife.

Lawrence's 2001 character-based murder mystery, "Lantana," evoked a whole city (Sydney) of memorably tormented souls, their unmet needs and barely hidden anxieties lurking just below the surface. In every one of them, you could feel real, vulnerable desperation. But the characters in "Jindabyne" seem to be wooden pieces on the filmmakers' over-explanatory chessboard -- certainly not the spiritually devastated beings of Carver's books.

Clearly, Lawrence is more obsessed with his own big picture. In his bid to repurpose -- and, perhaps arrogantly, outdo -- Carver's story, Lawrence misses the writer's prevailing ethos: the sense of self-contained internal misery and that haunting quality of being hopelessly human.

Jindabyne (123 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, profanity and nudity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company