Sometimes the truth doesn’t set you free. Structured around a returning Iraq vet’s quest to fill in the memory gap surrounding the circumstances of a deadly RPG attack, The Dry Land at least has the virtue of not turning its delayed reveal into a skeleton key to unlocking both the character’s and the film’s true meaning. No, James (Ryan O’Nan) is just a prone to violent mood swings and unwarranted bouts of jealousy after learning the circumstances of his involvement in the incident that left two of his buddies and several Iraqis dead as he was when his memory was clouded by amnesia.
Which means that Ryan Piers Williams’s film is just one more run-of-the-mill veteran-struggling-to-adjust-to-civilian-life tale, the kind that’s been around at least as far back as Hemingway’s 1925 story Soldier’s Home, and that’s provided productive cinematic fodder since William Wyler’s 1946 Oscar-winner The Best Years of Our Lives. But with this latest entry, the well has run as dry as the dusty Texas landscape that gives Williams’s movie its title. When James gets off the plane at the El Paso airport, he’s greeted by his loving wife, Sara (America Ferrera), and best bud Michael (Jason Ritter), and returning home, he soon finds employment in his father-in-law’s slaughterhouse (the graphic on-screen killing of cattle a far too obvious stand-in for the carnage perpetrated in Iraq). However, the signs of unrest are soon apparent: in the middle of a nightmare, he nearly chokes his wife to death; later, when she comes on to him sweetly, he turns her around and fucks her brutally from behind. By the time he’s drunkenly destroying his trailer home, he knows it’s time to seek help, and after stopping at the local veteran hospital for a prescription of anti-anxiety medicine (which he pops by the handful), he’s off to visit a wounded colleague at Walter Reed in hopes of discovering the circumstances that brought him to his current state of unrest.
Though The Dry Land is pretty ordinary stuff coming at this late date in the Iraq game and though it often gets sidetracked by unnecessary side-plots (the poor health of James’s emphysemic mother) or ridiculous incident (a motel assignation with a pair of whores proposed by a friend and rejected in media res by James), Williams occasionally succeeds in crafting scenes that usefully articulate the precarious state of veteran life. In one such staging, James drops by for an unannounced visit to the home of a former army buddy, Raymond (Wilmer Valderrama). As the two sit on plastic chairs outside the latter’s house, talking around their experiences, Raymond tries to keep the tone light, jocular. While, of necessity, he draws on their shared memories of the war (after all, what else do they have in common?), he sticks to humorous memories, reminiscing about an officer unknowingly dancing with a transvestite and covers the whole conversation with a protective layer of macho speak.
But when James broaches the circumstances of the RPG attack, Raymond tells him to forget it, though he eventually agrees to accompany him to Washington to visit their wounded colleague, Henry (Diego Klattenhoff). As the three sit around the latter’s hospital room, James picks up Henry’s guitar and leads the others in a sing-along to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” lingering shots of the bandages on Henry’s hands standing a stern reminder of his own inability to play the instrument. As the performance is interrupted by a burst of incontinence from the patient (as sudden and brutal as the song is slow-building and sweet), Williams powerfully denies the ability of communality and good intentions to serve as a means of redemption in the face of wartime injury. Whether the injury is mental or physical, the filmmaker suggests, the consequences of the conflict are beyond such easy recuperation and are usually irrevocable. Though his unflinching, downbeat stance hammers home that not negligible point, without the accompaniment of more nuanced insights or a wider political context (though of course no film about Iraq can be considered apolitical), the film feels limited in both its intentions and its execution, a twin sense of boundedness that comes to a head in the film’s final scene in which the hero’s fate is sealed through a shopworn bit of audio impressionism and the melodramatic cliché of the loyal woman charging to her man’s side in his hour of need.