While the plot of The Dry is twisty-turny and unfolds across generations through the actions of a multitude of characters, the truly evil and implacable villain is indicated by the title and the opening scrawl: “324 days since rain.” If you expect this to be the story of how that drought breaks, you’ll be disappointed. The film stays firmly in its dusty and sun-blasted mode, and the only relief that eventually arrives is the revelation of who committed the horrific crimes of passion that set the story in motion. And even then, the sky remains cloudless, and the drought grinds on, unimpressed with the vicious schemes of humans.

Set in the flatlands of the Australian outback, The Dry, directed by Robert Connolly and adapted with Harry Cripps from Jane Harper’s eponymous novel, spins a web of complex relationships in the fictional town of Kiewarra. Like many small towns, it’s a bed of jealousies and resentments that span lifetimes. The opening scenes depict the aftermath of a killing where a woman lies in the hallway outside a bedroom as a baby cries in her crib. Thankfully taking place mostly off-camera, the crime is nevertheless horrifying in its description: an apparent murder-suicide where the husband, Luke (Martin Dingle Wall) shot his wife and young son before taking his own life in a field nearby, sparing only the life of the baby. When Luke’s old friend Aaron (Eric Bana) shows up for the funeral, age-old tensions begin to crackle. Aaron is a federal agent who moved away years ago to escape the town’s scorn for his perceived role in a much older crime: the drowning death of a teenage girl, Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt). Luke’s parents (Bruce Spence and Julia Blake), doubting that their son could have slaughtered his own family, but aware that he had some anger issues, implore Aaron to stick around for a few days to see what he can uncover.

If the plot sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Part of the pleasure—or the frustration—of The Dry lies in its oblique approach to setting out each of these elements. Flashbacks are shuffled into the forward-moving storyline, with multiple characters appearing as younger versions of themselves. At times, coherence is strained as one struggles to sort out who’s who and how they all fit together in the events of the past and the present. On top of that, there’s the matter of the protagonist’s reliability: could Aaron really have been responsible for Ellie’s drowning, as her dementia-addled father (William Zappa) and hotheaded brother (Matt Nable) seem to believe?

Here’s where Bana’s quiet charisma and watchful manner work to the film’s advantage. Remaining reserved and polite around the nattering locals, he nevertheless carries the hint of physical menace in his bearing. He accompanies the local cop, Greg (Keir O’Donnell), to question the townspeople and scour the scenes of the crimes, subtly but confidently stepping into the unofficial role of the lead investigator. Bana exudes wariness, not only of potential suspects but also of his own memory of the day Ellie died at a secluded watering hole. The flashbacks of his budding romance with the doomed Ellie are fraught with tenderness and yearning, even as the possibility lingers that he or Luke might have done something unforgivable that remains shrouded in suppressed memory. That watering hole, in the present, is a bone-dry crater in the ground, as wasted and lifeless as Ellie’s truncated future.

While the film never draws an explicit link between the bleakness of the drought and the prickliness of the characters, the sense of malaise in the desiccated landscape is palpable. Wide-angle shots pan across the flat horizon and boots kick up dust everywhere people go, all filmed in a blown-out palette of pale browns and greys. There’s beauty here, but, like the story itself, it’s thorny and unforgiving. The eventual revelation of what happened to Ellie and to Luke’s family doesn’t exactly surprise, but it does all click together in a way that makes sense, like a complex machine turning its gears. The motives behind the murders turn out to be even darker and more complicated than appearances suggested. And yet not even the resolution of these mysteries brings anything like relief for the characters. The sun blazes down, flies buzz around heads, and yet another day dawns without rain. One gets the feeling that, for the people stuck in this place, not even a downpour could save them from all the bad blood that’s baked into the dry ground.

Summary
The film stays firmly in its dusty and sun-blasted mode, and the only relief that eventually arrives is the revelation of who committed the horrific crimes of passion that set the story in motion.
70 %
Drought noir
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