Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) and Claire (Laura Linney) live in the Australian town of Jindabyne with their young son Tom (Sean Rees-Wemyss). An unspoken tension lies beneath the surface of their relationship; their marriage is still recovering from Claire suffering a traumatic postpartum nervous breakdown following the birth of their son several years ago. Stewart's mother, who stepped in to help raise her grandson for the first eighteen months of his life following Claire's breakdown, has not yet let go of her need to control Claire's family. Both Stewart and his mother handle Claire as though she is a shattered vase glued back together, and might fall apart again at any moment. Claire, as the film opens, learns she is pregnant again, which terrifies her, but she keeps the pregnancy a secret from Stewart until she can decide what to do.
Claire's best friend, Jude (Deborra-lee Furness) and her husband Carl (John Howard) are raising their granddaughter (and Tom's best friend) Caylin-Calandria (Eva Lazarro), who, in the wake of her mother's death, has developed an unhealthy obsession for dead things and rituals, into which she continually draws Tom. The children's schoolteacher, Carmel, who is of native Australian descent, is dating Stewart and Carl's friend Rocco. The fourth couple, Billy (Simon Stone) and his young wife Elissa (Alice Garner), who have a baby, are young and still in that blissful state of new love that makes their older friends roll their eyes with the wisdom of experience.
Life in Jindabyne is routine and peaceful as we meet the characters; things take a drastic turn when the men go off for their "boys only" trout fishing trip. The trip is the initiation of Billy "the kid" into the group; he works for Stewart at his garage, and Stewart wants to teach his young mechanic how to fly fish. Their campsite is remote, and out of cellphone range. The men settle in and start fishing, and the first thing Stewart catches is a young woman's body. He is horrified, as are his friends when they answer his call for help. And yet, rather than bringing the girl's body out of the water and immediately hiking back up the mountain and into cell phone range to call the authorities, the four men make what will prove to be a fateful decision: They tether the girl with fishing line to a tree to keep her body from floating off and getting lost. Then, they just leave her there, in the water, with the intent of finishing their fishing weekend before notifying the police.
When the community finds out what the men have done, all hell breaks loose, and they find themselves vilified by their friends and neighbors. When the girl is identified as Aboriginal, accusations of racism and hate crime add fuel to the fire. At the center of the swirl of controversy, Claire struggles desperately to understand how her husband could have left the body of a murdered girl floating in the river while he enjoyed his fishing trip. The callousness of his decision strikes her to the core and shatters everything she thought she knew about her husband and her marriage.
Therein lies one of the central themes at the heart of Jindabyne: The differences between men and women, brought into sharp relief by the men's handling of the situation. To the men, it didn't make any difference to the dead girl whether they reported her that day or two days later; she was beyond help. To the women, on the other hand, the men's choice to fish while a murdered girl floated tethered to a tree is beyond comprehension. Claire alone understands the need to find a way to make recompense for her husband's actions; in trying to find a way to bring forgiveness to her husband, she also seeks absolution and forgiveness for herself, as well as for the breakdown that led her to abandon her son and husband.
Jindabyne is seamlessly directed and beautifully acted by the entire cast, but Linney and Byrne are the real standouts. Their mutual dance as husband and wife in this terribly dysfunctional marriage is so fraught with real raw emotion, their hurt and sorrow and anger radiate from the screen. Director Ray Lawrence captures in Jindabyne both the intimacy of the lives of married people and the broader fabric of a community -- and the soap-bubble fragility of our perceptions of our lovers, friends and neighbors.
The film was based on a Raymond Carver short story, "So Much Water So Close to Home," which was previously the basis for a segment of Robert Altman's Shortcuts (the "Huey Lewis" segment of that film), so if you've seen that Shortcuts, Jindabyne will strike a familiar note. Even so, Lawrence has taken Carver's story and made it his own. Jindabyne is a subtle and sublime film that peeks around the dark edges of the human heart and searches out the tendrils of light that hold us together. Like a fine glass of wine, its flavor lingers long after the closing credits, and leaves you pondering your own life, and the ways in which you judge both others and yourself.