The fictional south Australian community of Kiewarra is parched of truth and rain in director Robert Connolly’s new thriller “The Dry.” But the endless days of drought (324 and counting, to be exact) serving as metaphorical backdrop and aesthetic foundation for this moody sun-baked mystery at least provide a more bearable welcome than the arched eyebrows and menacing looks which greet Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) upon returning to where he grew up. Precipitation might water down the resentment that coats this town like gasoline, but we get the sense truth will set it ablaze, justifying long-harbored grudges against Bana’s character after he was effectively exiled decades ago in the aftermath of a teen girl’s drowning he’s believed to have been involved in.
And still believed to be involved in. That mysterious connection and the lack of clarity surrounding it is the central question and emotional impetus in a just-effective-enough movie with myriad questions and flare-ups of emotion, helping to keep its head above waters of overfamiliarity instead of being dragged down by the script’s complicated tangle of people and perils. Here, the momentum comes from frustrations born from the fissures of trauma. If there’s any doubt about time’s ability to prolong the unanswered – and, perhaps, about how small a community Kiewarra is – it evaporates when unruly visitors bang on Aaron’s hotel room in the dead of night, an ostensible score to settle in tow.
It isn’t a whim that brings Aaron back, but the funeral of an old friend, Luke, believed to have killed his wife and child before turning the gun on himself. The tragedy has sent shockwaves through tight-knit Kiewarra while re-energizing older ones…Luke was also believed to have had some sort of hand in the death of Ellie so many years ago. At least, that’s what’s implied to the audience via early flashbacks and Bana imbuing Aaron’s persona with a touch of unfinished-business grittiness.
As far as haunted performances go, Bana lends a vivid brokenness to Aaron, as if the years have only made him more fragile. When he agrees to extend his stay to look into the more slippery details of Luke’s case, Bana effectively gives a slow-burn mystery that occasionally leaves us impatient for answers its cataclysmic stakes, as if Aaron was working to do good by the past before the revelations of that backstory are revealed. His investment in everything happening around him gives “The Dry” an electricity, especially when it comes to the increasingly threatening denizens of Kiewarra. Their steadfastness makes certain questions unavoidable for the audience: Is this hardened, stoic federal agent we’re following actually the antagonist of his story? Is it guilt or regret that lies behind that morose exterior?
Adapted by Connolly and Harry Cripps from Jane Harper’s novel of the same name, “The Dry” is underscored by an air of melancholy which I suspect has as much to do with its timeline-origami structure as much as how it manages to justify its own self-seriousness at a time when dark-hearted movies too often refuse to look themselves in the mirror. Audiences may find themselves straining to understand what new switch-flipping scraps of information lights up the bulb inside Aaron’s head in pivotal moments, but that compromise doesn’t overshadow how intriguingly elemental the movie is, ultimately making on the sinister promise of its opening scene. In it, an infant’s sharp wail cuts through space and perhaps time as well as the camera glides through the bloody aftermath of the killings which set this story into motion.
The ambitious and admirable thing about “The Dry” is the same as its silliest thing and biggest flaw: It’s attempting to tell two stories for the price of one, and attempting to selling us on Aaron as the ostensible link between crimes past and present without fully allowing us entrance into the character’s interior mind. That dovetailing makes sense in the form of literature, when the reader can absorb it at their own pace, but the screen translation results in a big ask by Connolly and a tough challenge for Bana. Which is why it helps their case that “The Dry” doesn’t cheapen how thorny it feel on a primal level, even if the satisfaction of its reveals are a trickle more than a thrilling rush.
There’s something rewarding about how the same things that are cerebral about “The Dry” also deepen its emotions, about its suggestion that complicity is a matter of perspective. Ultimately, that’s perfect for a drama that’s more successful in its thematic and tonal aims than tidying up its narrative specifics. Everyone is a suspect in “The Dry”; more importantly, everyone remembers.
"The Dry" is rated R for violence and language throughout. It's available in select San Antonio theaters Friday.
Starring: Eric Bana, Genevieve O'Reilly, Keir O'Donnell, BeBe Bettencourt
Directed by Robert Connolly
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