I have a co-worker who, almost every chance he gets, will recommend Lantana, a drama/thriller from Australia that came out in 2001. It’s easy to see why; it’s a film made for and about adults without being sanctimonious about it, and without a heavy-handed touch, it explores betrayal, marriage, and what can hold us together and/or tear us apart. There’s a particularly poignant scene where one of the characters insists her husband wasn’t involved in the death of a woman, because “he told me he didn’t do it,” and you realize she and her husband are the only ones in the film who have the kind of relationship to make that line ring true. The dead body, a woman, is shown in the opening sequence of Lantana, and it hangs over the entire film. Another dead woman is show early on in director Ray Lawrence’s follow-up film, Jindabyne, and it also hangs over the entire film, though in a markedly different way.
For starters, whereas Lantana was set in the suburbs and city, this film is set in more isolated and rural areas. This is no accident, for two reasons. One, the body is eventually discovered during a fishing trip. Those on the trip include Stewart Kane (Gabriel Byrne), a former racecar champion who now runs a garage, and his friends Carl (John Howard), Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis) and Billy (Simon Stone). When they find the body, instead of immediately going for help, they tie the dead girl to the rocks ostensibly to keep it from floating away, and only after going fishing for a full day afterwards do they cut their trip off and go to the police. The second reason is the young dead girl (Tatea Reilly) is Maori, and the Aboriginal community is naturally furious, wondering if Stewart and his friends would have acted this way if the girl was white. For that reason, and for reasons even she can’t fully explain, Stewart’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) is shaken by the event, and wonders if she can ever fully trust or relate to Stewart again.
If the first part sounds familiar, then you’ve either read the Raymond Carver short story “So Much Water So Close to Home,” or seen the Robert Altman movie Short Cuts, a filmed version of many Carver stories, including that one (in the Altman movie, Fred Ward plays the fisherman, and Anne Archer is his wife). Similarly, the second part, as well as the visuals Lawrence and cinematographer David Williamson give us of the rural area, may remind you of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, or Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. Unfortunately, while there’s a lot to like in Lawrence’s film, neither part measures up to its predecessors.
The film starts out well, with Lawrence and writer Beatrix Christian setting up Stewart, his friends and job, and his relationship with Claire and his family, which has problems (she apparently left him early on in their marriage), but still seems to be going well. And the actual event of when Stewart finds the body is gut-wrenching. Lawrence and Christian also make it easy to understand, from Stewart’s point of view, why he was actually doing the police a favor by tying the girl’s body to the rocks (he didn’t want the current to carry her away, or ruin the body by having it on the ground where the flies or vultures could get to it). And without a word of dialogue, we see the unspoken agreement between Stewart and his friends to keep on going with their fishing trip, at least for another day. But while it’s easy to understand why the men, particularly Stewart, would feel compelled to defend their actions, Lawrence and Christian throw the film out of whack by suggesting Claire is the only person close to them to question it. You get a vague sense the film is trying to question how a community could hush up a crime, but it isn’t well dramatized. There’s also subplots thrown in – Carl and his wife Jude (Deborra Lee-Furness) have been taking care of their granddaughter since her mother die, and she struggles with her feelings – that seem shoehorned in, rather than being melded together like all the plots in Lantana did. As for the aborigines, it’s obvious Lawrence and Christian are trying to show the underbelly of racism that still exists in Australia towards Aborigines, and of course, that’s a commendable and ambitious goal. The problem is, while the dead girl gets to show some dimension before she gets killed (we see her singing along to a song in the car), the rest of the Maoris shown in the film are all one-dimensional. I realize they’re supporting characters in the story, but it’s as if Lawrence and Christian were afraid moviegoers wouldn’t care as much about the Aborigines if they had any unlikable characteristics, so they’re made noble in their suffering. This also pitches the film towards just being about white liberal guilt (and I say that as a white liberal).
I did say there was much to like. In addition to show the love in Claire and Stewart’s family, as well as the simmering tensions underneath (especially when Stewart’s mother comes to visit), Lawrence and Christian also do a good job when those tensions explode. A lot of that, of course, is due to the acting by Linney and Byrne. Linney has spent most of her film career playing brittle, intelligent women, so this role isn’t exactly a stretch for her. But she also shows warmth during her scenes with her son, and with her friends, and we can see how much it pains her no one else seems to be on her side. And she also shows us how, again, she doesn’t even know why this affects her so. Byrne likewise has played this part before, but he makes a believable match with Linney, and is able to communicate a lot with very little. And those visuals are striking without merely being picturesque. Jindabyne deserves credit for that, and its ambitions; I just wish it had been better.
Over 20 years ago, John Cusack had a small role in one of the better Stephen King adaptations, Stand by Me. Now, he takes the lead role in another King adaptation, 1408, based on one of King’s short stories. He plays Mike Enslin, a former novelist who now writes books that disprove supernatural phenomena. He gets an unsigned postcard one day telling him to stay out of room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan. Naturally, this is like hanging out a welcome mat, and no matter what hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) tells Enslin about the room (in the history of the hotel, 56 people have died in the room, and no one lasts more than an hour there), Enslin insists on taking the room. Naturally, once he gets settled into the room, the shit hits the fan.
The first hour of 1408 is genuinely creepy without overdoing it. Director Mikael Hafstrom (Derailed) sets up tension nicely, and even throws in some humor (the room announces its intentions with authority with the clock radio blaring out the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun”). Although he is now over 40 years old, Cusack retains his boyish charm and wiseass personality, as well as his quiet vulnerability, and all of that serves him well here. And Jackson matches him in his few scenes, being intelligent and foreboding at the same time. But Hafstrom eventually drags down the story by throwing in not only too many obvious special effects scenes, but also too many plot reversals (to be fair, I never read the short story by King, so it may be his fault). It’s too bad to say this about a horror movie that tries to avoid the usual slasher pic route, but 1408 simply ends up being boring rather than scary and compelling.