Dust billows off drought-ridden farmlands in the Australian crime drama The Dry (in cinemas January 1), but the only consolation to be had is tears. An unsettling mystery, the film moves at a sombre, measured pace. The plot is less concerned with sudden twists than in allowing the parched milieu and wary locals to reveal the desperation and deceit that has taken hold. When a local farmer, Luke Hadler, shoots his wife and son dead before turning the shotgun on himself, the small town of Kiewarra is horrified yet not truly surprised. This is just what it comes to.
One of the few doubters is Aaron Falk (Eric Bana), Luke’s childhood best friend, now an Australian Federal Police officer returning for the family’s funeral. Asked to look into what appears to be an open-and-shut case by Luke’s despairing parents ( Julia Blake and Bruce Spence), Aaron starts to nose around with the assistance of the local police sergeant, Greg Raco (Keir O’Donnell). Unhappy locals and Aaron’s own instincts equally urge him to once again flee Kiewarra, as he did at age 16 when he was a suspect in the unsolved death of a female friend.
Director Robert Connolly (Paper Planes, The Bank) understands how to make genre films resonate. Working from a script he adapted with Harry Cripps from Jane Harper’s acclaimed 2016 novel, Connolly plots parallel investigations. The questions Aaron asks about Luke reflect doubts about his own prior decisions, and his unease is palpable: did he secretly always know that Luke was capable of this? Flashback scenes, with Joe Klocek as the adolescent Aaron, are like painful memories that intrude without warning.
Greying at the temples, Bana plays Aaron not as the heroic investigator but a watchful escapee dragged back. As in Steven Spielberg’s Munich there’s a fretful, fascinating edge to his character – when a posse comes to the local pub to send Aaron packing, the financial crimes expert hides in a storeroom. Even the landscape mocks him, with rivers he remembers swimming in with friends now dried up and cracked, as if the El Niño is a vengeful curse and not a weather pattern.
The cinematic lineage of The Dry stretches right back to Hollywood thrillers such as 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock, in which Spencer Tracy’s dogged outsider also asks difficult questions. But as with Ivan Sen’s recent outback police procedurals, Mystery Road and Goldstone, the sparse, distinctly Australian vistas of The Dry hold subtle contemporary truths. As he traverses Kiewarra, Aaron occasionally catches a glimpse of red: the glow of a bushfire on the horizon at night, or blood splatter baking under the relentless sun. Maybe, the film suggests, no one can leave this land unscathed.
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