Movie Review: The Dry (2020)

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From the desolate, sun-drenched terrain of beige, brown, and yellow as far as the eye can see to the constant threat of bushfire thanks to the dryness of the environment and its unforgiving temperatures, the moody mythos of rural Australia is perfectly suited to western noir storytelling.

Not quite John Ford and not quite John Dahl – to audiences in the American southwest watching director Robert Connolly's new adaptation of Jane Harper's award-winning first novel “The Dry,” the film's overwhelmingly massive landscape seems equal parts foreign and familiar as it spools out before us onscreen.

Easily the most important character in this slow-burn thriller, in the hands of Connolly, his co-scripters Harry Cripps and Samantha Strauss, and his gifted lead actor Eric Bana (who also produced), the setting serves as a terrific allegory for the internal battle playing out in the mind of our main character as well.

As Australian federal police officer Aaron Falk, Bana's conflicted protagonist leaves his residence in Melbourne to return to his rural hometown of Kiewarra for the first time in over twenty years in order to bury his best high school friend Luke (Martin Dingle Wall) who killed his wife and young son in an alleged murder-suicide. Unwilling to believe that their son could do such a thing, after visiting with Luke's parents, Aaron promises them that he'll look into his family's deaths, even though he has no jurisdiction or any real link to the man his former friend had become after all this time.

An intelligent, evocative look at the way that the past and the present can coexist simultaneously, as Aaron investigates the present-day crime alongside a young sergeant (played by Keir O'Donnell), the film reveals more about his complicated history with Luke, including the suspicious death of a beautiful young woman they knew in high school that still haunts Aaron to this day. Feeling like the two cases are inextricably linked (or perhaps just needing them to be in order to find closure), just like the dry tinder of the ground beneath his feet that could catch fire at any moment, Aaron must figure out what is and what is not in his power to control.

A methodical actor who's at his best when playing contemplative characters who keep their cards close to their chest while embarking on external missions that wind up having to do more with what's going on internally than anything else, “The Dry” boasts one of Bana's strongest and most introspective turns in years.

Shot four-and-a-half hours outside of Melbourne in the flat, dry landscape of the Wimmera region of Victoria with its wide-open spaces that convey both mystery and danger and the secrets of a small, deceptively close-knit community beginning to come undone, “The Dry” feels like a western neo-noir descendant of “One False Move” and “Flesh and Bone.” But like an existential mystery made by a post-“Paris, Texas” era Wim Wenders, “The Dry” is much more intrigued by the psychology of its people rather than the traditionally plot-heavy machinations of a '90s thriller. Richly atmospheric and decidedly deliberate, it's the best Australian film of this type since director Ivan Sen released the brilliant sequel to his breakout hit “Mystery Road” in 2016 with “Goldstone.”

Taking time to develop, as we meet the people of Kiewarra, we aren't quite sure who and how many of these citizens and threads might prove to be connected in nefarious ways. One of those films where you find yourself following Bana into a small-town bar, look around and instantly know that every single person onscreen has an unpredictable story to tell, while a few of its supporting characters – including Aaron and Luke's old friend Gretchen (well played by Genevieve O'Reilly) – are a bit shortchanged by the narrative as a whole, it's a truly effective sleeper overall. Preferring to take the long way around in such a way that the film's first hour requires the patience of a prestige TV mystery series, once “The Dry” finds its footing, everything clicks into place.

Building up energy as it continues like a cyclone whipping around dust in the Victorian flatlands, as Aaron works to solve both cases using his heart as well as his head, the film reaches a conclusion as shocking as it is true. Surprisingly stellar in its deployment of red herrings and misdirection, in offering viewers a brainy, unexpected respite from mindless studio ventures, “The Dry” strikes a match against celluloid and brings the heat of summer movie season directly to the screen.

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