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Before the thaw 

Jindabyne and Snow Cake show humans naughty by nature

Usually movies do their damnedest to promote the virtues of small towns in rustic settings. Being close to nature and in a tightly knit community supposedly helps connect people to simple values and to recognize their fellow human beings. Even the talking race car in Cars found a personality overall in a rural village.

Two new independent films, Jindabyne and Snow Cake, suggest the opposite, that isolated communities can bring out the worst in human nature. When the characters stand before the rocky hills of Australia or the snowy reaches of Canada, we're struck less by the beautiful cinematography of the scenery than the natural world's harsh indifference to human affairs. Snow Cake's sentimental view of emotional resilience can't match Jindabyne's suggestion that living close to the wilderness provides more opportunities for evil to manifest itself.

Set near a real Australian town that had to be rebuilt following a man-made flood in the 1960s, Jindabyne hinges on a seemingly innocuous fishing trip. Four buddies, including one-time Irish racing champ Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), enjoy the rituals of a weekend getaway only to discover the unclad body of a young Aboriginal woman in a remote river. The evidence of murder doesn't prevent the men from fishing, however. As the youngest one tells his wife: "We found a body ... I caught the most amazing fish, though."

If the premise sounds familiar, it's the plot of Raymond Carver's short story "So Much Water So Close to Home," one of the tales adapted for Robert Altman's Short Cuts. Australian director Ray Lawrence uses Jindabyne as more than a postmortem of a fictional yet eerily plausible episode. The woman's murderer moves undetected through the story, not unlike the serial killer in Wolf Creek. The public outcry against the four fishermen echoes media frenzy in A Cry in the Dark, while the quiet, sinister nature scenes evoke Picnic at Hanging Rock. Bundling in the mystique of the flooded town, Jindabyne serves as a kind of morbid memory book of Australian cautionary tales.

Lawrence may intend for Jindabyne to indict specific facets of the Australian national character: not being Australian, I can't unpack all the implications of the densely constructed film. Jindabyne unquestionably portrays personal connections as frayed to the breaking point. As Stewart's guilt-ridden wife, Laura Linney provides such a subtle, sympathetic performance that we only gradually realize that her character is neglecting her own family. Featuring a pair of death-obsessed children, as well as the murderer in the margins, Jindabyne creates a mood of impending doom that's difficult to shake, and which the grieving but optimistic epiphany at the end does little to assuage.

Snow Cake relies heavily on "healing moments," such as recapturing a feeling of liberation by bouncing on a trampoline. Director Marc Evans oversees the kind of independent film that's as manipulative and contrived as any Hollywood Oscar-bait star vehicle, such as I Am Sam. Sigourney Weaver plays Linda Freeman, a "highly functional" autistic woman who barely responds to the death of her daughter but freaks out over the idea of touching garbage or getting her floor wet.

In time-honored, mismatched-buddy fashion, she gets an unexpected houseguest in the person of Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman), the last person to talk to Linda's free-spirited daughter (the appealing Emily Hampshire) before her death. With closed-off feelings and plenty of personal baggage, some of which justifies his unlikely efforts to help Linda, Alex chooses to stay with her through the funeral.

Coming on the heels of her marvelous supporting role in The TV Set, Weaver again proves to be a fascinating actress, but never quite reconciles the childlike, rubber-limbed aspects of the character with the more severe, borderline-robotic traits. While Alex's emotional thaw feels like a fait accompli from virtually the first scene (especially given the romantic attentions of Carrie-Anne Moss as Linda's neighbor), Rickman gives a saving-grace performance. With rare exceptions such as Truly Madly Deeply, we almost never see the actor's tender side – he's usually tormenting the likes of Harry Potter or John McClane – and his minimal acting reveals a wealth of humor and pathos.

As Snow Cake's title foreshadows, snow and cold weather prove restorative to Linda, just as her initially chilly demeanor eventually warms up Alex. The elements show no such generosity in Jindabyne, where fallen rocks and floodwaters contain fraught dangers, and tragedy only serves to drive people further apart.

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