May 30, 2007 at 12:00 am

Despite legions of fans, Raymond Carver's short fiction has, for the most part, steered mercifully clear of the big screen. The notable exception, up until now, is Robert Altman's knotted-together adaptation of nine Carver tales for 1993's Short Cuts. That film's L.A-inspired vignettes, however, bore little spiritual resemblance to their source material. As good as the film was, Carver's work provided only a canvas for Altman's melodramatic obsessions. Gone were the writer's sense of moral ambiguity and emotional minimalism.

With Jindabyne, Australian filmmaker Ray Lawrence (the excellent Lantana) has put all the focus on just one of Carver's stories, "So Much Water So Close to Home," but broadened the scope of its masterfully written 25 pages. A melancholy study of a household fractured by guilt and depression, Jindabyne also examines how family, community and the media can blow miscommunication and lapses in judgment out of proportion.

Gabriel Byrne plays Stewart, one of four friends who discover the body of a murdered aboriginal girl while fishing in their secluded "secret spot." Instead of hiking back to report it to the police, the men decide to tie the body to a log and continue with their weekend of fishing. This questionably callous choice ends up having profound personal consequences.

When Stewart's wife, Claire (Laura Linney), learns what's happened, the couple's already damaged relationship begins to crumble. Hiding a pregnancy and obsessed with making amends for her husband's insensitivity, Claire struggles for redemption by reaching out to the dead girl's family.

Lawrence captures Carver's detached sense of hopelessness, quiet irony and measured spirituality. He understands the dramatic power of leaving things unsaid and how the proximity of death often makes us feel more alive. The residents of Jindabyne work so hard to submerge their feelings that the town's former location — submerged to make way for a dam — becomes an unsettling metaphor for the desires and regrets that haunt them like ghosts. Far from the "a tidy town" the community's welcome sign boasts, nearly everyone living in this vast Australian landscape is broken; straining to find grace, acceptance or absolution.

As subtle and intelligent as Jindabyne is, Lawrence's complex and multilayered morality tale takes two glaring missteps. The first is its ill-conceived and unneeded racial undertones. Probing the divide between whites and Indigenous Australians, he gives the film a mystical subtext that doesn't square with its otherwise intimate drama. The second is Lawrence's lacing of the girl's murderer throughout the story. Teasing us with thriller conventions, he disingenuously ratchets up an impending sense of danger, making it feel like a suspense film rather than a dramatic character study.

While the cast is uniformly convincing, Linney, with her unforgiving desperation, carries the final third of the film, carefully balancing what she hears and sees with what she knows to be true. It's a delicate dance, taking an angry character and turning her guilt-ridden rage into a moving quest for redemption, and the actress pulls it off.

Unlike its offhanded appearance in Short Cuts, Carver's dark-hearted commentary on unspoken selfish need resonates throughout Jindabyne. Lawrence dares to suggest that maybe this young girl needed to die so that a few near-dead souls could learn to experience life again. Maybe the impending tragedy of humanity is that the things we do to feel alive require that we forget how we treat the dead.


Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].