A Raymond Carver short story is a straight-arrow shot through the forest that is human behavior. They’re economical tales—some nearly all dialogue—and they whiz by and hit the gut, leaving you with a vague sense of dread about what lurks in the darkness. So Much Water So Close to Home is a story so short you could read it while scrambling eggs. In it, a woman finds out that her husband and his fishing buddies found a girl’s corpse in a river, but rather than dash back for the cops, the four men set up camp for the night, ate dinner, went to sleep, woke up, made coffee, fished, drank whiskey, kept fishing, made dinner, played cards, went back to sleep, woke up again, fished a little more, and then packed up their stuff and hiked out to call the cops. So many insignificant actions adding up to a town scandal.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it happened to Fred Ward, Buck Henry and Huey “Heart of Rock & Roll” Lewis in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. Altman weaved together nine different Carver short stories to make a feature film—or, at a grandiose 187 minutes, two films—a grindhouse of blue-collar marital strife. With Jindabyne, director Ray Lawrence and writer Beatrix Christian give their full attention, stretching the slim tale like Silly Putty to over two hours of a thoughtful, sincere, probing drama starring Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne as the couple in the center of a media storm. But to accomplish this quite decent little picture, Lawrence and Christian have had to thicken Carver’s brevity with a slug of Oprah syrup, giving each character a melodramatic backstory and stirring in a whole mess of racial tensions Carver left out of the pot.
In Carver’s story, Linney and Byrne were such an everycouple that you have to read it three times to notice they even had names. Here, they’re Claire and Stewart Kane—a couple with a young son named Dean who haven’t quite dealt with Claire’s post-partum depression disappearing act, where she left the baby with her garage mechanic husband and skipped town for months. They’ve already moved past the glow of reconciliation and Claire’s up to her old routine: heaving the pressures of the world on her shoulders and freezing her husband out of bed. But not enough, as she’s pregnant again and knows he’ll be furious. Meanwhile, Stewart’s dyed his hair black in a fit of lost youth, and son Dean’s playmate is a hellion who gets him to bring a knife to kindergarten so they can slice up the class guinea pig. And Stewart’s undercutting mother-in-law, who’s just announced that she’s moving back in, isn’t helping.
The smartest thing this update does is shift the action from the Pacific Northwest to Australia. When the murdered girl in the river is recognized as an aspiring folk singer from a neighboring Aboriginal tribe, her kinsman want revenge against the four men for what they’re certain was racist apathy. Would they have trekked back to the car immediately if the victim had been white? What if the corpse had been male? Everyone’s asking, especially Claire, and the men can’t answer.
Their car was miles away. It was close to night. They’d spent the whole day driving. This was supposed to be the best weekend of the year. Carver lets you see how strong a flimsy excuse can feel in the moment. As he writes, Stewart and his mates are “decent men, family men, men who take care of their jobs.” It’s like that old (but accurate) trope about Hitler’s Germans—they weren’t actively evil, just conscientiously thoughtless. In his story, the body is just a body—a cold, wet intrusion into a perfect day; there’s empathy for their dream vacation gone sour. Lawrence’s film, however, starts with the doomed girl driving down the highway (is any landscape more strikingly lonely?) singing a tune en route to her death. We see the beauty the fishermen never see. That’s stacking the deck.
What shakes out from this mess of repressed emotions is a dead-on study of how what seems right can become so wrong. The whole town wants answers, but decides to act without them, and both the retributions and the apologies miss their targets. It’s like Carver’s saying that these yes or no decisions we think are the road to heaven (yes to green vegetables, no to kicking puppies) are really only proof that we can’t even find the right map. We’ve got to weed through the murk alone and hope our friends can forgive our mistakes, even when they don’t understand.