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Review: “Jindabyne” (2006)

Old Jindabyne, located in New South Wales, Australia, is mostly invisible. Flooded in the 1960s to make Lake Jindabyne, the abandoned town sits quietly under the rippling surface. But on some days, when lake waters drop low enough, parts of Jindabyne come into view — a reminder of sorts that buried things have a tendency not to stay buried forever.

That Old Jindabyne serves as the setting of Aussie director Ray Lawrence’s tense, eerie character study “Jindabyne” is certainly no accident. The watery ghost town seems to attract residents nursing old grudges and long-suppressed emotional pain. However, it takes a murder and the discovery of the body to force all the hurts to the surface and even bigger, more dangerous ones. Early in their fishing trip, Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), Gregory (Chris Haywood), Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis), Billy (Simon Stone) and Carl (John Howard) discover the nude body of an aboriginal woman (Tatea Reilly) floating in the river. The men decide to finish their weekend before reporting the gruesome finding, going so far as to tether the body to tree so it won’t float downstream. She’s dead, they seem to agree silently, so what does it matter?

It’s a decision that has enormous and damning repercussions. Though the men elect to create a story to explain their choice, Billy spills the truth to a reporter. The story hits like a bomb blast. Stewart’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) is horrified by her husband’s cruel behavior and tries to make amends with the family of Susan, the dead girl. This alienates her from her friends: Carmel (Leah Purcell), who believes Claire has no business intruding on aboriginal rituals, and Jude (Deborra-Lee Furness), still recovering from the death of her own daughter. Tensions between the whites and the aborigines, who believe Stewart and his friends wouldn’t have dismissed Susan so easily if she’d been white.

Though Susan’s death plays a key role in “Jindabyne,” the film is about much more than a murder and the discovery of her corpse. Much like Karen Moncrieff’s sadly overlooked “The Dead Girl,” “Jindabyne” explores the ways that one death creates a kind of butterfly effect, changing everyone from the family of the deceased to complete strangers, and untethers all the little hurts we weight down. Susan’s murder affects each character differently. For Stewart, it brings to light his anger over the post-partum depression that caused Claire to leave him and their son for 18 months. On one level, Claire simply wants to atone for her husband’s mistake; on another, she’s seeking absolution of her own unresolved guilt. The incident makes Jude and Carl confront their grief over the death of their daughter and the stress of raising her daughter (Eva Lazzaro). Even the killer seems surprised by the firestorm his crime has created. In this way, “Jindabyne” is very much a character study, but one with many interconnected threads.

Telling a story this complex requires patience and time, and Lawrence, who adapted “Jindabyne” from Raymond Carver’s short story “So Much Water So Close to Home,” has both in spades. He lets the characters unravel the plot threads at a pace impatient viewers will call “maddeningly slow” and minimalist fans — including this viewer — will deem “exactly right.” Along the way he focuses much attention on nature, including Lake Jindabyne, and wide, expansive shots of Australia’s wilderness. These scenes do much to reveal the continent’s harsh natural beauty, but they also cultivate the feeling of loneliness so central to the film. In the face of such vastness, man is, in essence, very small and alone.

The people of Jindabyne know this feeling all too well, and the actors give voice to this. Furness deftly shows the weariness and the sheer frustration that come after the death of a child, while Stone understands Billy’s immaturity renders him incapable of processing something this complicated. Byrne lends Stewart an air of stubborn and tense silence; his motivations are a mystery to everyone. There’s a hardness in him that frightens his wife, a part of himself he refuses to show her. Linney’s performance, though, shakes us hardest. Her Claire is a woman bell-jarred by guilt. She cannot go backward or forward, and it is she who reminds us that a life of perpetual penance is its own kind of hell.  

Grade: A

“Blind Side” an uncommonly understated human drama

Sandra Bullock is all sass, little sentiment as Michael Oher's (Quinton Aaron) guardian in "The Blind Side."

Let’s be plain about “The Blind Side”: Lee Daniels’ “Precious” it ain’t. Save for two damaged protagonists, these films have little in common. In “The Blind Side,” John Lee Hancock dulls the sharp edges of a childhood lived in poverty and neglect; Daniels displays the emotional and physical hurts in full view. Really, it’s the difference between neatly bandaged wounds and open ones. 

But perhaps this comparison, though inevitable, isn’t exactly fair, because it implies that “The Blind Side” is some kind of emotionally manipulative mushfest that is top-heavy with cliches. Gird your loins for a startling realization: There’s little schmaltz here. Indeed, what delights about “The Blind Side” is the low-key tone and the balance Hancock strikes between character-based drama, sports and comedy. What’s more, the director sees his characters as actual people and allows them to behave as such; their actions feel natural, not forced along by inane plot conventions. They become real to us, something that rarely happens in films with such clear feel-good intentions as this one.

Much credit must be given upfront to Sandra Bullock for her bold, unidealistic performance as Leigh Anne Tuohy, a wealthy Tennessee interior designer whose designer-label threads belie her kind heart and good intentions. This is strong, nuanced work from an actress who (finally! after years of crap like “Miss Congeniality”!) has begun to trust her talent. She grounds “The Blind Side” firmly in matter-of-fact reality as her story intersects with that of future Baltimore Ravens right tackle Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a poor teen accepted to the private Christian academy her children attend. Accepted because the football coach (Ray McKinnon) sees a bright athletic future for him, Michael has a low GPA and a tendency to retreat into his own head that some teachers mistake as stupidity. But Leigh Anne’s son S.J. (Jae Head) befriends Michael, and so she invites the teen into her home. They hire a tutor (the always-wonderful Kathy Bates) to work with Michael while S.J. teaches him football. Slowly, and much to the dismay of Leigh Anne’s snobbish friends, Michael becomes a real part of the Tuohy family.

The story, loosely based on Michael Lewis’ 2006 book about the real Oher, is simple enough to suggest some parts have been smoothed over. That’s probably the case, but it’s important to note what Hancock gets right: the likable characters and the lack of Hollywood mushiness. Tim McGraw, though hardly Sean Penn, doesn’t overact as Leigh Anne’s supportive husband Sean (he does have a few unnecessarily corny zingers, though). Head doesn’t exactly transcend the Precocious Kid stereotype, but he provides solid comic relief. Bates’ sly humor is a welcome addition as well (Kathy Bates don’t do cutesy, remember?). Aaron, chosen more for his size than acting chops, is a little more hesitant than he should be, but that doesn’t derail the movie.

Actually, that hesitation aligns him nicely with Bullock’s hard-nosed Leigh Anne, herself a bit reticent and not prone to spontaneous displays of emotion. These two have more in common than we’d think (this wins the film more points for originality). Sean describes Leigh Anne as an onion — “you have to peel her back layer by layer” — and that extends to Michael. Perhaps that is what draws Leigh Anne to Michael, the fear of seeming vulnerable. They are, in a strange way, kindred spirits. Bullock, who’s always had a quietly guarded air about her, captures Leigh Anne’s reluctance perfectly. This performance might earn her some nominations, and she will deserve them.

Hancock also sidesteps a number of cliches that lesser directors would devour: the Big Game; the Touching Moments Montage; the Coach’s Big Motivational Speech. “The Blind Side” contains not one of these insufferable moments, and the few checklist items that do crop up — there is a misunderstanding and a scene with Michael’s drug-addicted biological mother — are handled with grace. When given the choice, Hancock errs on the side of poise. And while that doesn’t mean “The Blind Side” is perfect, it does mean that it’s a refreshingly unsentimental inspirational film.

Grade: B-