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Morality message 'Jindabyne' makes a powerful and entertaining mix

Two adorable elementary school chums bring a fishing knife to school. Not only that, the older one -- a girl -- kills her class' pet rat for some mysterious little kid purpose.

The school, needless to say, is perturbed. So are the little boy's parents and the girl's grandparents (who've been raising her after the death of their daughter). The kids are grounded, big time.

When grandma brings her granddaughter back home, she sees her husband on the way into the house. "Your granddaughter's just done her first murder," she yells out as a joke. "Toilet's plugged again," is his reply.

Remember that exchange in Ray Lawrence's "Jindabyne." It's not just the little toss-off bit of family black humor you think it is. Nor, though, does it prefigure something awful. It's subtle and understated, as is much of "Jindabyne," a meditation on morality, mortality and murder that escalates into a small emotional powerhouse.

This is a film that rights a great movie wrong. The first time Raymond Carver's masterful short story "So Much Water So Close to Come" was adapted in a movie was in Robert Altman's Carver-story omnibus "Short Cuts," which, however entertaining, was as arrogant a travesty of a great writer as I've ever seen. That sort of pot-smoked, self-adoring bullying of literature was an Altman staple (see "The Long Goodbye," a brilliant travesty of Raymond Chandler, a writer of far less vulnerability).

What director Ray Lawrence and screenwriter Beatrix Christian do to Carver's story is even more of a free-form amplification than Altman's, but it treats Carver with infinitely more respect and honor. It's a very good movie.

The kernel of Carver's story is there -- some working-class blokes who discover the dead body of a young woman afloat in the river during their much-cherished annual fishing trip. Not only do the boys just keep on fishing ("We found a body. I caught the most amazing fish, though."), but their luck with their rods and reels explodes. Their creels fill to overflow with their big and juicy catches.

The aftermath, however, becomes a slowly growing calamity in the small Australian town of Jindabyne. And, as the couple affected the most by it, Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney do some of their finest work on-screen in years, which is no small matter with such performers.

It's a complex, often understated movie, but it's moving and even scary -- and it repays many times over complete attention to its details.

Its power is very different from Carver's narrative plainness and severity, but it is, in itself, a film that can stick in your memory for a while.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

JINDABYNE

3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney

DIRECTOR: Ray Lawrence

RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes

RATING: R for nudity and language.

THE LOWDOWN: Much-praised Australian film adaptation of a Raymond Carver story about some working-class blokes who discover a woman's dead body during their annual fishing trip.

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