A film review by Craig J. Koban June 10, 2021


2021, R, 117 mins.

Eric Bana as Aaron Falk  /  Genevieve O'Reilly as Gretchen Schoner  /  Keir O'Donnell as Greg Raco  /  John Polson as Scott Whitlam  /  Matt Nable as Grant Dow  /  Eddie Baroo as McMurdo  /  Martin Dingle-Wall as Luke Hadler  /  Bruce Spence as Gerry Hadler

Directed by Robert Connolly, written by  Harry Cripps and Connolly, based on the novel by Jane Harper

Very few mystery thrillers as of late use their environment as a character of importance in their own right as well as Robert Connelly's THE DRY, which takes its name from a particular area of scorched dry land in Kiewarra, a farming community outside of Melbourne, Australia.  The film contains eerie echoes of the very recent and real wildfires that ravaged the nation, and its the environmental desolation presented here that bares down heavily on already troubled souls that figure heavily into the multiple generations spanning narrative.  

On a basic level, THE DRY contains familiar elements to genre fans - small town/native born resident (now in law enforcement) makes a return home to investigate a murder case that opens up many past wounds he would rather have forever sealed - but what separates Connolly's effort above others is how patient it is with the unraveling of its multiple mysteries presented.   That, at it refreshingly marks a return of star Eric Bana back to his Aussie feature film roots (his first made in his country in over a decade-plus), which reminds us of the quiet power and conviction that he can bring to complex roles. 

And THE DRY definitely offers up Bana one of his finest and most memorable roles in many years as Federal Agent Aaron Falk, who was once a citizen of Kiewarra, but left under questionable circumstances twenty years earlier and has never returned since.  He's driven back to his hometown after a long self-imposed absence by the death of one of his childhood friends in Luke, who appears to have committed murder-suicide with his wife and oldest child (only the baby was spared).  What really complicates matters immensely for Aaron is that he was romantically involved with a young woman back in the day named Ellie, who died under horrible and still unsolved circumstances when they were teenage friends with Luke.  Nearly everyone in the town suspected Aaron as the main suspect, but no tangible evidence suggested that he did the deed.  Unfortunately for him, unwavering allegations dogged him for his adult life, which precipitated his fleeing of Kiewarra because of all of the hostility he received...and as he soon discovers upon his return, still receives. 

Still, Aaron wants to pay respect to his dead friend, but his investigative instincts obviously begin to kick into overdrive when he discovers the heinous nature of Luke's crime.  Aaron is coaxed by the deceased's parents to stay longer in Kiewarra and find out what actually happened to Luke that prompted him to commit such an atrocity.  He teams up with the local sergeant in Greg Raco (Keir O’Donnell ), and within no time some evidence doesn't hold up to unequivocally make Luke guilty (like the fact that bullets found in the bodies don't match any guns he owned).  Aaron then takes it largely upon himself to deep dive into this case and find whatever clue possible to nab the actual guilty suspect, and in the process has to deal with the all of the townsfolk that are still bitter about his own possible link to the death of Ellie all those years ago.  Aaron even manages to come in contact with and reacquaint himself with Gretchen (Genevieve O'Reilly), who was once in the inner circle of friends with Aaron, Luke, and Ellie.  Aaron is also dealt with the crushing blow of how badly his homeland has been destroyed by crippling, years-long drought, which has made the farming community on heightened edged.   



Again, the geography of this place is of utmost significance in THE DRY, and the way that Connolly uses the land as a catalyst for memories (both good and bad) and heartache (both past and present) is noteworthy.  The film opens with footage of the wind and sand storm plagued land of endless dried fields, so much so that it makes one think you're about to watch a post-apocalyptic thriller versus a modern day set murder mystery thriller.  There is an underlining element of environmental decay and death that taints this film, and the drought has a demoralizing affect on the people here, which is not aided by this community now having to deal with the horrible murder-suicide of Luke's family.  There's depression on multiple fronts in THE DRY, and its evocation of the harsh immediacy of its time and place is kind of masterful.  One scene in particular is haunting.  It involves Aaron returning to the river that he, Luke, Ellie, and Gretchin swam in during their adolescence, but there's no water to be had anymore.  What's depressingly left is a vast hole in the ground...and not much else.  It's no wonder why all of the characters that populate this story are on edge in some form or another. 

And as for the multiple mysteries contained within the narrative itself?  Connolly takes full advantage of this multi-tiered and intriguing premise, which not only has Aaron having to solve the present day murder case, but also has to get to the bottom of what happened to Ellie two decades previously and, hopefully in the process, clear his name forever.  As a result, THE DRY offers up two timelines that coalesce together, the one in the present and flashbacks involving Aaron and his friends in the past that builds up to Ellie's tragic demise.  At first, these grainy flashback sequences are a bit abruptly thrown in, which leads to some initial confusion as to what's happening.  Yet, as the film unfolds and finds its grove, these transitions between now and then become more fleshed out and clearly relayed, which introduces us to these characters in their youth and with their lives fully ahead of them.  Editors Nick Meyers and Alexandre de Franceschi deserve props for making this potentially distracting juxtaposition work better as the film gains story momentum and suspense.  It's also crucial to getting into Aaron's fragile headspace to learn what makes him tick and what past demons lurk in his closet.   

I've always found Bana to be an actor that usually is not a part of the larger conversation of our great understated performers, but he sure does bring it in THE DRY playing up to this man's grim determination to right multiple wrongs while also showing him as someone deeply burdened with ample emotional baggage.  Bana is the right kind of nonchalant, but wholly focused actor to make Aaron a densely layered and complex protagonist, and he's supported by a wonderfully assembled supporting cast, all playing memorably eccentric townsfolk that either have it in for Aaron or want to help him in his pursuits.  I especially liked Daniel Frederiksen as the town doctor and James Frecheville as the school principle, not to mention William Zappa as Ellie's eternally spiteful father and Matt Nable as Ellie's verbally hostile cousin; neither of them take kindly to Aaron's return back home and see him as a threat to stability.  And then there's Reilly as one of Aaron's old friends that may or may not be on the level with him as he tries to find out what's going down with the increasingly shady looking murder.  THE DRY sets up her relationship with Aaron as a potential romantic one, but Connolly has more tricks up his sleeves that allows for these characters to not simply go down a browbeaten and predictable path.   

THE DRY unfolds with so much tactful economy and efficiency that it kind of pains me to ponder how the ultimate plot revelations that springboard us to a climatic payoff didn't have the dramatic profundity that I was wanting.  Obviously, there's two mysteries for the price of one here vying for attention, with one hitting the right kind of melancholic notes and the other sort of methodically attempting for something shocking, but ultimately lacks true shocking staying power.  However, I'm a real sucker for small town mystery thrillers where all of its denizens seem to be holding some well guarded secrets in one form or another.  And I liked this tale of a flawed hero coming back home to solve one big crime while also being riddled with remorse over an equally confounding one from decades past.  Most crucially, THE DRY is a well oiled, tightly constructed, impeccably acted, and thoroughly involving slow-burn thriller that gets better as it progresses.  It may get off to a slow start and its multiple endings are a decided mixed bag, but everything sandwiched in-between will - no pun intended - wet the palette of genre aficionados.

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