Dead in the water

A sterile adaptation of Raymond Carver is outdone by a gay high-school drama

<strong>Jindabyne (15

Ray Lawrence, the Australian director who made Bliss and Lantana, continues his series of films that sound like colours in the Dulux range with Jindabyne. But I would advise against slapping a few coats of Jindabyne on your living-room wall unless you want to end up severely depressed. The film begins and ends with scenes of menace. In between, there is murder, grief, a near-drowning and countless scenes of domestic strife. Put like that, it sounds like a slow day in Albert Square. But even at its most miserable, EastEnders isn't guilty of the one thing that ultimately sinks Jindabyne: delusions of profundity.

Stewart (Gabriel Byrne) leaves his home town of Jindabyne, south of Sydney, for a fishing trip with three friends, but when they arrive at the river he finds a woman's body floating. Weirdly, the men resolve not to curtail their holiday, choosing instead to report the corpse just before they head home two days later. Shortly after they reach Jindabyne, the townspeople start asking why the four men waited so long, not least Stewart's wife, Claire (Laura Linney), who wonders how he was able to make love to her the night he returned.

If the scenario sounds familiar, that's because it is adapted from Raymond Carver's short story "So Much Water So Close To Home", already filmed by Robert Altman as part of his Carver compendium, Short Cuts. The story runs to a few thousand words, whereas Lawrence's film is over two hours long, and feels it. I think Carver is doomed to be mangled and misunderstood. Those who adapt his work often view the sparseness of his style as an invitation to embellish. Like Altman, who dressed the attractively bare bones of the writing with unwelcome ironies, Lawrence and his screenwriter, Beatrix Christian, have overloaded a near-perfect story with resonances and incidents that just don't take.

The dead girl is now an Aborigine, and her relatives misinterpret the group's cavalier attitude towards her as racism. Claire's attempts to forge a connection with the grieving family, underplayed so beautifully on the page, are milked on screen for all they're worth, turning the picture into her quest for redemption. Add an array of irritatingly quirky minor characters - a child with macabre leanings, a killer who keeps turning up unexpectedly to glare in an evil manner - and you have proof that less is more. For all this activity, Jindabyne is also oddly inert: dead in the water, you might say. Sitting through it is like watching paint dry. On a coffin.

There's nothing drab about Wild Tigers I Have Known, Cam Archer's experimental debut feature, shot in glossy, DayGlo colours and featuring a cast grown in Petri dishes in secret laboratories at Abercrombie & Fitch. Logan (Malcolm Stumpf) is an androgynous 13-year-old who develops a crush on the cool, impossibly named Rodeo (Patrick White). At around the same time, a cougar is spotted roaming the school grounds.

"There's a mountain lion on the campus," intones a bored voice on the Tannoy system. "Please find a safe place." (I'm not making this up.) This being avant-garde film-making, you can place your bets on what's actually happening, though there's an appealing lunacy to many of the images, such as Logan lying in the middle of a roller rink dressed in Native American headgear while Rodeo skates around him. What's that all about?

The main selling point for the film is the name of Gus Van Sant as executive producer. I always think of him as a kind of gay Santa, and the young directors he takes under his wing - Archer, Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation), Nickolas Perry (Speedway Junky) - are his little elves, toiling away at their workbenches. "That's coming along nicely," I can hear Van Santa saying to one as he views a rough cut. "But I wonder if it couldn't be a little more . . . what's the word?" "Gay?" pipes up an elf. "Yes! Just a little more gay!" (Imagine the uproar when one of the elves gets the itch to make a heterosexual film.) Anyway, long may the workshop thrive; its playful output is infinitely preferable to the sterility of films such as Jindabyne.

Pick of the week

Zodiac (15)
dir: David Fincher
It's a hard day's knife for the cops and reporters hunting a serial killer.

The Bothersome Man (15)
dir: Jens Lien
Oddball Norwegian science-fiction comedy. You certainly don't see those every day.

The Painted Veil (15)
dir: John Curran
Sensitive adaptation of W Somerset Maugham novel, starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state