It’s easy to see how a filmmaker could read one of Raymond Carver’s spare little stories of domesticated males attempting to reassert their primacy and think, Why don’t I flesh that out a bit?—and then discover, too late, that Carver has said all he needs to say and anything else is bloat. Robert Altman had the right idea in Short Cuts. He knew there was nothing to be gained by meditating on Carver’s poisonous miniatures. He laid out a bunch of them side by side and provided a (more or less) suitable frame. In Jindabyne, the Australian director Ray Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian go the other way, giving Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home” the brooding art-house treatment. They throw in a mother-in-law, the neighbors, a serial killer who’s the symbol of everything evil in the culture, some sinned-against Aborigines (natch), and all the familiar portents of life Down Under outside the big cities.
The Carver story is nine (large-type) pages built around a camping-and-fishing trip in which a group of male buddies stumble on the floating corpse of a murdered woman and decide (without actually discussing it) that no female, living or dead, is going to interfere with their masculine rites. The story is told from the perspective of one of the horrified wives when the incident becomes a national scandal: She’s racked with guilt, attends the dead woman’s funeral (at one point, she’s followed by a man in a pickup with presumably malevolent intentions), and ends up surrendering to her husband’s urges at the story’s abrupt conclusion. Male emasculation breeds male callousness breeds male murderousness—it’s a continuum. (Fishing is in there somewhere.) The dead girl and the protagonist float in the same metaphorical water.
Australia—specifically the town of Jindabyne, on the edge of a vast national park in the southeast corner of the country—is a good setting for Carver: Macho archetypes have proved to be more tenacious down there. (Last week, we heard from various right-wing commentators how pansified Americans have become: How else could those dead male Virginia Tech students not have disarmed that shooter the way Jack Bauer would have?) Jindabyne begins with the old killer (Chris Haywood)—who’s practically out of last year’s revolting Aussie torture-porn picture Wolf Creek—waylaying an innocent, dark-skinned female in his pickup. Then we meet Claire (Laura Linney), who gazes from her hilltop home over the lake where her husband, Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), is teaching their son to fish. Before you know it, the kid takes a knife to the class rabbit. Claire is aghast, but Stewart’s mother (Betty Lucas) thinks it’s a just a boy being a boy.
My favorite additions to the story are Claire’s brief, acid exchanges with her mother-in-law, who’s doing her best to reinforce the hunting-and-fishing hierarchy. Lawrence doesn’t underline the fact that Linney’s Claire is American, but I think it’s supposed to make her feminism (and, later, guilty liberalism) more understandable. Claire left home for eighteen months after her son was born and is now on a slew of antidepressants—she’s not inured to the cultural misogyny. Although Linney is, as always, radiantly natural, Jindabyne might have been more suspenseful if Claire had been of that culture and had further to go to transcend it.
The fishing sequence, when it finally comes, is not so much devastating as inexplicable. Carver is reductionist; the director and screenwriter aren’t. So as the men keep on fishing, you might feel as if you’ve missed something: Are the police on the way? Have they already come? You’re never sure what has been left offscreen. Before the men descend to the river, the youngest (Simon Stone) stares up at some humming power lines and the soundtrack reverberates with a mystical female (Aboriginal?) voice: Are the power lines giving people cancer? Is this another metaphor? Has Peter Weir taken over the direction? The dead woman is a native, which adds the sin of racism to misogyny—and offers an opportunity for tribal chanting and an exotic burial. Man and wife grope toward an understanding, but the avenging patriarchal evil lingers … Scene by scene, Jindabyne has dramatic force, but it’s an awfully long slog. Carver’s smartest tactic was never outstaying his welcome.
While fascinated by male bonding, Raymond Carver never explored, to my knowledge, the subject of men having sex with horses, which is the focus of the quasi-documentary Zoo—the title being short for the word zoophilic. In elliptical fashion, the director, Robinson Devor, tells the true story of a man (known as “Mr. Hands”) in Washington State who died from a perforated colon after being banged by an Arabian stallion, and of the tight group of zoos who maintained the stable in which he received that fatal thrust. The challenge of writing about the film—which I quite like—is not making juvenile jokes at its expense. That would be out of keeping with Devor’s tone, which is arty and imagistic and features disembodied narration (some of it by actors, some by the story’s participants). Devor doesn’t endorse horse-on-man sex, but he does attempt—with sympathy—to account for the appeal. He evokes a world of rootless men, uncomfortable in relationships with humans, making solemn nocturnal trips to the barn—regarding themselves not as sexual predators but as the truest of animal lovers. While I find their view problematic, I don’t see the point of making an anti-horse-fucking film. By all means, let them make their case.