The best-selling Aussie crime novel jumps to the big screen, and Eric Bana is superb as its conflicted central cop.
December 29, 2020
In The Dry, a man heads back to the drought-stricken town he grew up in for the first time in two decades, returning in the aftermath of a new tragedy and unearthing the still-blistering remnants of an old one in the process. An Australian Federal Police officer who left the regional farming community of Kiewarra under terse circumstances, Aaron Falk has the look of someone who long ago let the ability to display his feelings dry up — and while that isn't what the film's title refers to, Eric Bana plays the movie's protagonist as if it was. He's dogged and no-nonsense. He can shoot a glare at someone that's as severe as his profile, and often does. Twenty years after Chopper made Bana's name as a dramatic actor, rather than a sketch comedy star whose movie career began with The Castle, he's a canny pick for The Dry's lead role. As he stalks through his first Australian movie since 2007's Romulus, My Father, he silently simmers with intensity in every gaze; however, viewers already know that Bana never just plays the hard man — or, in his comic days, just one type of funny guy either. And so, the audience can also spot that his unrelenting exterior holds back a storm of Aaron's pain and loss, all lurking behind an expression as parched as the yellowed fields that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Conveying that balance of steely focus and buried heartache isn't a new task; tales on the page and screen are filled with characters, typically men and often those with a badge, who fit the type. But one of the reasons that Bana is so right for The Dry is that, in his hands, Aaron isn't merely the sum of his well-worn traits. Similarly, he isn't just a cookie-cutter conflicted cop in yet another small-town murder-mystery about a community torn apart by a young woman's death, never recovering, then rehashing their woes when another trauma arises. It's lucky that Bana makes such an impact for another reason, too. When the film repeatedly stresses that Aaron was a teenager 20 years ago — with scenes starring Joe Klocek (Nowhere Boys) as a younger, more sensitive version of the character to help — that's The Dry's least convincing element. Bana is a great actor, but buying that he's playing someone who was an adolescent hanging out in a creek and pining after his crush Ellie (debutant BeBe Bettencourt) two decades ago is a stretch, and always feels that way.
Those flashbacks pepper The Dry's main narrative, although both threads are intertwined. Based on the best-selling, award-winning novel by Jane Harper, the film explores Aaron's need to interrogate himself and unlock his past as much as his quest to investigate whether there's anything more to the shocking murder-suicide that brings him back. He's renowned for being outstanding at his job, with his reputation preceding him upon his return. Indeed, it's why the Hadlers (Winchester's Bruce Spence and The Dressmaker's Julia Blake) ask him to look into the death of their son and his childhood best friend Luke (Martin Dingle Wall, Strangerland) — and of Luke's wife and son. Alas, this isn't the first time that Luke and Aaron have been linked to a grim situation. To many in a place so wearied by the lack of rain that everyone has been sapped of their strength, his homecoming is far from welcome, and neither are his questions.
Sitting in the shadow of recent Australian crime thrillers Mystery Road and Goldstone, The Dry is a whodunnit multiple times over, with Aaron determined to discover the truth behind not only Luke and his family's deaths, but Ellie's. For the audience, the movie itself is just as dedicated to uncovering why the teen Aaron and Luke (Sam Corlett, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) remained under a cloud of suspicion from all those years ago. Both parts of the story encompass Kiewarra's key figures, spanning everyone from Aaron's old friend Gretchen (Genevieve O'Reilly, Glitch) and Ellie's angry brother Grant (Matt Nable, 1%) to local cop Greg (Keir O'Donnell, Project Blue Book) and his pregnant wife Rita (Miranda Tapsell, Top End Wedding), plus school headmaster Scott (John Polson, acting for the first time since Mission: Impossible II). Still, even given that lineup of characters and the excellent talent behind them, it's Aaron's journey that always demands attention. One of the most intriguing aspects of The Dry is how it's clearly stitched together from familiar elements — not just regarding its central character, but throughout the entire narrative — but, through Aaron, this tale of grief, guilt, secrets, stark truths, dusty fields and emotional desolation finds a way to resonate.
At first glance, it might seem as if filmmaker Robert Connolly is in vastly different terrain to 2014's Paper Planes, his last cinema release. Even with its family-friendly focus, that movie was steeped in mourning, though — and it also jumped into a well-populated realm, embraced its tropes and traded upon existing genre affection as well. That's The Dry through and through. Co-scripted by Harry Cripps (the forthcoming Penguin Bloom), it's a solid crime movie, and an engaging but rarely surprising one. It's built from recognisable parts, and stakes its own patch by choosing where and how to make an impact. Of course, with Balibo also on his resume as a writer/director, plus The Boys and Acute Misfortune as a producer, Connolly is experienced in making thorny stories stand out. The filmmaker knows how to tell an absorbing tale, however clear-cut it may be. He's skilled at splashing memorable and thematically loaded imagery across his frames, as The Dry's flaxen landscape, as shot by Stefan Duscio (The Invisible Man) shows. But viewers don't just connect with a dark narrative and eye-catching visuals — they connect with the people within both. Here, there's no choice but to connect with Bana, and with the sorrow that'd seep from Aaron and saturate the movie like a tidal wave if he'd let it.