[NOTE: This film presented as the Opening Night Entry of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival]
From the moment the first frame hits the screen on Robert Connolly’s (Paper Planes) intensely dark mystery drama The Dry, it’s almost like your face is hit with the brutal heat its story delivers. Oddly fitting that it takes place in a part of the Australian outback with the conditions of a literal tinderbox. It’s true to the land it was all created in, and especially to its literary inspiration, a best-selling novel by Jane Harper. All of it intertwines around itself to craft a duality of peril and preconception just waiting to be cut through by a hero, known to stir up trouble. But it’s always for the best reasons. And if it feels like this story’s been told before, that’s alright. Connolly knows just how to shake up the formula, in a delightful new direction.
Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) is a federal agent based out of Melbourne; he hasn’t come back around to his hometown in years. And it appears he picked the least inopportune time. It’s been nearly a year since the town’s seen rain, they’re at levels of widespread drought, as well as flared tension. Falk is back for the funeral of a childhood friend. He discovers immediately it was under the dark circumstances of a murder-suicide with his wife and eldest son also involved. At first, Falk is just looking to go in and out, until the deceased’s parents push him to investigate the case, to prove their son lacks an evil bone, and that there could be something a little deeper.
Falk and local cop Greg (Keir O’Donnell) soon bury themselves into the case, intertwined with many flashbacks to his youth in Kiewanna, reopening some old memories of Luke, and some painful wounds with the unsolved death of Ellie, a like-minded confidant from back in the day. Growing up it was often a cozy place, but endless drought conditions changed the landscape, with only a few regular residents staying behind. Most recognizable is fellow friend Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly), wonderfully eager to welcome back Aaron into the fold. Most anyone else he encounters is rather snide in communicating back to him, their preconceptions of Ellie’s passing firm in their minds.
Eliminate the flashbacks, and this would’ve been brushed off as a meager procedural no different from an old Law & Order rerun. Connelly and co-writer Harry Cripps (Penguin Bloom) see Harper’s novel as a buoyant enough launchpad to shatter typical police drama convention, presenting a little more personality and intimacy in the focus of its protagonist. It doesn’t go too dark as a psych thriller would, cutting through surface layer just enough to explore Luke’s psyche and Aaron’s thought process like they were to share the same fears and anxieties.
It all remains entangled in the same singular narrative, making pit stops along the way to assess the two unique mentalities. After having repressed much of his past life for something more successful in a modern metropolis, Aaron is suddenly awash in tension. Make no mistake, a character like his trapped in a complex web of hidden secrets, it’s fair game for Bana to roll with. Even raise his game higher as a performer, in the more intense scenes. He never falters under the stress; it’s all handled with a high acumen. O’Donnell as the copilot fares much the same, even as his role of the small-town officer limits his experience with highly violent crimes. Their dynamic doesn’t equate to much compatibility off the job; elsewhere, they do work well from each other’s nervous energy without much hesitation.
Connolly has no trouble keeping the tension alarmingly high, just like the heat. The two go hand in hand, much vividly, while on-screen violence stays at a minimum. Away from the investigatory angle, The Dry is no less emotional. Like many a notable screen detective before him, Aaron perhaps gets a little too involved with his suspects. Rekindling lost relationships, with Gretchen especially, aids to maintain peace with his own guilt, present in rampant waves. She turns out to be his new best friend, often his only friend. Even as her own conflicted past with Ellie distracts her judgment (her brother interjects constantly in controlled rage), she’s like a steady rock, the mediator with a small hand in both subplots. Do keep an eye open for a rather underutilized Miranda Tapsell (Top End Wedding) as Greg’s loyal wife, deserving of a little more time to contribute on screen.
Even when we would least expect, everyone’s already a considerable suspect in a small town like Kiewanna. Connolly makes that clear off the bat as the ungodly wails of a young infant child, the only witness to the crime, play in the background. In a rustic atmosphere captured with expert cinematography by Stefan Duscio (The Invisible Man), The Dry lives up to its title at least until the third act. When it goes all out to achieve its tender, teary-eyed resolution (it might be worth reading the book after just to see if it lines up all the same), it does so with a bone-clicking chill. Bana firmly leads the charge with both charisma and intelligence, never letting his guard down to keep the surprises from springing too early. It would’ve been easy to just make static predictions, but this ride negates any preconceptions to make the unexpected exciting. May we see more dramas in the future that can serve true curveballs of suspense, on top of the already typical heartbreak. That I can get behind. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Dry is currently playing at Redmond’s iPic and Tacoma’s Grand Cinema, as well as on VOD; rated R for violence, and language throughout; 118 minutes.