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Review: The Dry Has the Predictable Pull of a Crime-of-the-Week Procedural

The particulars of the central mystery are mundane, to the point where the film itself doesn’t spend too much time digging into them.

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The Dry
Photo: IFC Films

It would be difficult to find a worse candidate for solving the murder-suicide that lies at the heart of Robert Connolly’s The Dry than its hero, federal police officer Aaron Falk (Eric Bana). Not only is he prejudiced about the case because he was once close friends with Luke (Martin Dingle Wall), the initial suspect, but almost everyone in the small town where the killings took place despises Aaron for his connection to a 20-year-old scandal. In reality, this would create a near-impossible barrier for any investigator to overcome. But this is the kind of mystery where a standup cop willing to doggedly bang his head against enough walls can always knock the truth loose, even if he might be a murderer himself.

Based on Jane Harper’s 2016 novel of the same name, The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a fictional southeast Australian town suffering from a nearly year-long drought. Following an opening montage of parched fields, cracked slabs of dry dirt, and great vistas of empty land emphasizing Kiewarra’s remoteness, Connolly’s film shows the aftermath of what looks like a deadly home invasion on a farm: blood spatter, a mother and boy dead, a baby girl wailing in her bed. Hours away in a Melbourne high-rise, Aaron reviews the voicemail and letter calling him home to face some kind of judgment. At the same time, The Dry starts threading in flashbacks to Aaron’s Kiewarra adolescence. These begin as an idyll—lazy days swimming in a creek with his friends Luke (played as a teenager by Sam Corlett), Gretchen (Claude Scott-Mitchell), and Ellie (Bebe Bettencourt)—but become nightmarish once turning to Aaron’s inexplicably guilt-spiked memories of Ellie’s body being pulled from the creek.

Once his adult self is back in Kiewarra, Aaron faces a mix of curiosity over his semi-celebrity status as a cop whose last big case made the papers and outright hostility. The latter comes primarily from Grant (Matt Nable), whose stereotypically violent redneck thuggery is pinned on believing that Ellie, his cousin, didn’t drown but was murdered by Aaron. Conveniently popping up to balance out Grant’s drunk rage is Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly), a single mother and farmer with a big-city sophistication who seems to have been waiting all this time for Aaron, her old boyfriend, to come home and start flirting with her again.

At first, Aaron investigates the murders as a favor to Luke’s parents, who don’t believe their could have killed his wife and child before shooting himself. But several discrepancies in the case and a local cop, Greg (Keir O’Donnell), with a puppy-like eagerness to help conspire to keep Aaron in what the bartender at his hotel jokes is “the black hole of Kiewarra.” The Dry follows the investigation in familiar fashion, spreading attention among a half-dozen or so locals who take turns as potential suspects while Aaron uncovers a plethora of small-town secrets, including two men hiding an affair and a baby of scandalous parentage.

The particulars of the mystery itself are mundane, to the point where the film itself doesn’t spend too much time digging into them. The dramatic energy in The Dry comes instead from the tinderbox setting—as Kiewarra tempers flare over the outcast stirring up trouble with all his awkward questions, it’s hard to imagine a conclusion that does not involve a town-incinerating fire—and the continually spooling flashbacks inside Aaron’s head that tick incrementally closer to the truth of Ellie’s death. The film’s double-barreled climax is unsatisfyingly neat, providing Aaron with a much too convenient heroic sacrifice. It feels like the end of an episode of a long-running Australian cop drama, after which Aaron will just return to Melbourne and solve more crimes-of-the-week.

Cast: Eric Bana, Genevieve O’Reilly, Keir O’Donnell, John Polson, Sam Corlett, Joe Klocek, John Polson, Miranda Tapsell, William Zappa, Matt Nable, James Frenchville, Claude Scott-Mitchell, Bebe Bettencourt, Martin Dingle Wall Director: Robert Connolly Screenwriter: Robert Connolly, Harry Cripps Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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