The cracked clay riverbeds, wheat fields turned to straw and parched forests of ghostly trees in the fictional Australian town of Kiewarra paint a vivid picture of the economic despair of prolonged drought and the fears of a bushfire that could rip through the depressed farming community in an instant. That haunted canvas is the tinderbox to which a citified local returns after 20 years’ absence in Robert Connolly’s moody crime mystery The Dry. It also provides a strong vehicle for the return of Eric Bana, stepping into air thick with anxiety and suspicion to lead his first homegrown feature in more than a decade.
Adapted by Connolly and Harry Cripps from the best-selling 2016 debut novel by Jane Harper, the film was a sizable hit in its domestic release earlier this year. While this is the kind of slow-burn thriller now more commonly given limited-series TV treatment, the IFC import’s firm handle on pace and tone, its intriguing layers of ambiguity, compelling performances and distinctive setting should spark interest, particularly from audiences hungry for adult drama.
The Bottom Line
A smoldering homecoming
Opening text over the vast, flat landscape reveals that it’s been 324 days since the last rainfall, with snippets of radio news indicating elevated temperatures and fire warnings. Accompanied by the ominous ambient strains of Peter Raeburn’s effective score, the camera pans around the blood-splattered walls of a farmhouse, while a baby screams untended in a crib in the next room and the body of a woman lies dead in the front hallway.
Meanwhile, in one of the cold, blue-steel skyscrapers of Melbourne, Australian Federal Police officer Aaron Falk (Bana) gets a call from the father of an old friend requesting his presence at the funerals that follow what’s being reported as a murder-suicide. Aaron’s childhood friend Luke (Martin Dingle Wall) allegedly shot his wife and son before turning the rifle on himself, only sparing his baby. But certain elements don’t add up, causing Luke’s devastated parents Barb and Gerry (beloved veterans Julia Blake and Bruce Spence) to ask him to stay on and lend an informal hand in the investigation being conducted by inexperienced young police sergeant Greg Raco (Keir O’Donnell).
Lyrical flashbacks threaded through the film show the town when it was still green and the river was a favorite swimming spot for quiet, sensitive teenage Aaron (Joe Klocek), his sweetheart Gretchen (Claude Scott-Mitchell), more volatile pal Luke (Sam Corlett) and troubled Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt), who drifts between the two boys, fully connecting with neither of them. But the tragic drowning of 17-year-old Ellie left unanswered questions that continue to gnaw at Aaron and prompt hostility toward him from the hotheaded locals, particularly Ellie’s embittered father Mal (William Zappa) and roughneck cousin Grant (Matt Nable).
Connolly and gifted DP Stefan Duscio (hot off The Invisible Man) avoid all the usual visual clichés of the Aussie backwater in movies. There are no contemplative Malickian wildlife shots of staring kangaroos or sinister-looking lizards, and not even the fluty song of the magpie that has become an almost compulsory audio element.
Yet the sense of place is palpable, from the drab main commercial street that appears unchanged in decades to the spectacular wide shots of fields starved for moisture and the intimate glimpses of the townsfolk’s careworn faces. That melancholy feeling of a once-thriving community now staring into the maw of an uncertain future is reflected in comments from Gerry about farmers becoming obsolete, replaced by GPS-controlled machinery. The muted, sun-bleached colors and the almost stately elegance of some of the visual compositions suggest the battered dignity beneath the weariness that hangs like a cloud.
As a local lad who left town in haste with his father Erik (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor) for reasons explained late in the action, Aaron has become an outsider. It’s obvious simply from the tailoring of the suit he wears to the funerals. Luke’s parents and school principal Scott Whitlam (John Polson, in front of the camera for the first time since Mission: Impossible II in 2000) are among the few who welcome him. But the most genuine warmth he receives is from Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly, terrific), now a single mother who has her own confusion about the tragedy of their high school years.
Editors Nick Meyers and Alexandre De Franceschi fluidly weave in the lazy interludes from that period to contrast with the sad transformation of a town blighted by misfortune. The emotional undertow of scenes with the tight-knit foursome is quite distinct from the circumspect nature of characters in the present. Even when Luke’s obnoxious alpha behavior creates friction, there’s a dreamy sense of discovery for the quartet, both of themselves and each other.
Ellie, however, remains somewhat remote, her sorrowful desire to escape evident when she sings alt-rock band The Church’s “Under the Milky Way” by a campfire. With its aura of mystery, the boulder formation deep in the forest where she goes to find solitude — and to which she brings Aaron — seems a pointed nod from Connolly to the Australian screen classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Harper’s novel stirs in a number of plot points that might easily have veered into melodrama — a clandestine gay relationship, child sexual abuse, a gambling addiction, paternity questions. But Connolly, whose credits include the Anthony LaPaglia features The Bank and Balibo and a chapter of the Tim Winton anthology The Turning, directs the story of a town full of secrets with maturity and restraint. Those qualities are matched by Bana’s sober, soulful performance, as Aaron navigates his conflicted feelings about the past while reaching a grave understanding, first of the recent deaths and then of the one from long ago.