… is a small town halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. It sits on a lake that didn’t used to be there, created by a dam. The chief industry seems to be sport fishing. There are trout the size of atomic submarines in the rivers feeding the lake.
Digression: The first thing you see in this movie is an announcement that says something like “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are warned that this motion picture contains the voices and images of dead people.” I looked it up and confirmed my feeling that the Torres Strait Islands are a group of small patches of land just off the tip of that finger of Queensland that points imperiously at New Guinea. Later, in a TV news report covering the murder that is at the center of what little plot there is here, the newsreader warns her aboriginal viewers that “the names of dead people” are contained in her report. Wow. I’ve heard of cultures where they don’t wish to have their pictures taken, ranging from the Amish to tribes who feel a camera will steal their souls. But not mention the names of the dead? That could sure put a crimp in a lot of conversations. “Remember when old What’s-his-name went to the river and …” “What’s who’s name?” “You know, What’s-his-name, the oldest son of Whosis. Big old dude. Scar on his face.” “You mean What’s-his-face.” “No, no, What’s-his-face was married to that old bag, name starts with a G …” And if you are aboriginal or TS Islander and think I’m mocking your religion, you’re absolutely right. It’s real stupid. But no stupider than any other religion.
Four good friends, including Gabriel Byrne, take off one morning on a fishing trip. They hike all day into the bush, set up camp, and start fishing. Then they discover the body of a young nude woman floating face-down in the river. It’s clear that she has been murdered. It’s too late to go back to the car, so they catch dinner, enjoy it, and turn in.
But the next day … damn, it’s just such a perfect day, and we’ve been planning this trip so long, and the damn fish are just leaping into the nets, and anyway, she’s dead … they spend the day fishing, and having a glorious time.
Next day, turn fan on high, throw in shit …
No one in town can believe these guys did it, including, most of all, his wife, Laura Linney. (What an American and an Irishman are doing married in the outback is never explained, but that’s okay, there’s a lot left unexplained here.) The guys are in deep denial about it. What did we do wrong? She was dead, fer chrissake. We couldn’t do anything for her. Their words are belied by their actions, though. The first thing Gabe says when they get back to the car is “Let’s get our stories straight.” So they claim one of them injured his ankle and they couldn’t hike out. Rather a (so-to-speak) lame excuse, as everyone realizes.
(Interestingly, three of the threads on the IMDb are asking the same question. What did they do wrong? My answer is, if you are insensitive enough to ask that question, there is no hope for you. They did nothing illegal, even the disgusted cop admits that. Wrong is a whole different matter.)
Because the girl was a 19-year-old TS Islander, the racial issue comes up. Would you have left her if she was white? I think they probably would have—this wasn’t about race, this was about fishing—but I can see the Islanders’ point.
Laura, who did nothing at all wrong, becomes obsessed with trying to do something, anything, to set things right, and she makes all the wrong moves. Good intentions, you know? The town is shunning her, the Islanders want no part of her, and Gabe, a moral weakling, is getting fed up. There is a tiny bit of that largely meaningless word, closure, at the end.
If you’re looking for a whodunit, this is not for you. We know who the killer is in the first five minutes. We see nothing of the hunt for the killer. This is all about how this horror impacts these families. There are many things going on, some merely hinted at, deep background, most never resolved. Again, if you want things neat, go elsewhere. There is a small nod to the possibility that the killer might strike again, and there are two moments so tense that Lee was bouncing up and down on the couch, moaning … but it’s not a horror picture, either. It’s not about a serial killer, it’s about the people who have to deal with the effects his crimes and their actions have on their lives. I thought it was done very well.
BTW: If this story looks vaguely familiar, it’s because it was told before in Short Cuts, by Robert Altman, one of those movies you most likely either loved or hated. We loved it, and will view my Laserdisc of it soon. Altman took a handful of short stories by Raymond Carver and interwove them. The writer of the new movie just used one of them. Short Cuts had one of the all-time dream casts, I feel: Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Fred Ward, Anne Archer, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Andie MacDowell, Lyle Lovett, Jack Lemmon, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey, Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Tim Robbins, Madeleine Stowe, and Frances McDormand, among others. Wow!