Australian Gothic The Dry sets its crime drama in the fictional small town of Kiewarra, where trust is as scarce as water. A grisly murder-suicide brings a big city big shot back to his roots, where his troubled past awaits him. As you may have guessed, even under the harsh sun, all is not what it seems. You couldn’t get a more standard definition of this genre out of a kit, but The Dry’s thirst for nuance and originality isn’t entirely damning. Director Robert Connolly’s adaptation of Jane Harper’s bestseller approaches its familiar elements with a realism as unembellished as its title, capably but unexcitingly walking us through its sunbaked beats.
Eric Bana’s Aaron, now a sharp-dressed federal agent, was driven out of town as a teen because of his suspicion in the drowning death of his friend Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt). When another of the friend group, Luke (Martin Dingle-Wall), seemingly kills his wife and young son, then himself, Aaron returns for the funeral and—after some guilt-tripping from Luke’s parents—an off-the-books investigation into what really happened. Flashbacks to the group’s halcyon hangouts nag at the standard procedural, pulling Aaron back into his memories. As if the townsfolk were ever going to let him forget anyways. Oh, and his chemistry with Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly), the other surviving friend of the group, throws the requisite romantic wrench right alongside it all.
Connolly and Harry Cripps’ script is clearly more interested in the petty yet permanent love and hate permeating any small town than the story’s central crime. Aaron’s confrontations, both with his dreamy recollections and with those locals that lacked the luxury of being able to physically move on from Ellie’s death, are alternatively heavenly and venomous. These flashbacks, these sunny, soft, lazy days of watering holes and campfires, are shot close and intimate—bolstered by young actors (Joe Klocek, Bettencourt, Sam Corlett, Claude Scott-Mitchell) that have the easy volatility that comes from a friend group so close that they could start fighting or making out at any moment. Coming back down to Earth in present day, each Kiewarra resident that Aaron and Keir O’Donnell’s helpful local cop visit are pretty solidly one-note in their open hostility. Bana and O’Donnell deliver balancing, well-measured performances that offer restrained bits of humor and exhaustion—as effective as any Good Cop, Bad Cop.
An obsession with Aaron’s past can undermine the ostensible plot (so, about those three dead folks…) they look to dig up, but that’s fitting for the setting, where nothing changes for the better and time only further reveals its ultimately hard foundation. Dusty roads cut through crispy farms whose yellow-brown death erodes whatever superficial distinction there used to be between civilization and the bush. The visual scope Connolly creates for the isolated outback town is welcome, but the plot never achieves any satisfying build-up and release that would compliment its stark and sweaty aesthetic. Instead, there’s both so much going on—incidental characters with incidental secrets—and so much repetition—those flashbacks all feel basically the same—that the pacing hiccups and lurches. Major reveals seem to leak accidentally rather than develop alongside a logical, tense investigation or a gossiping small town’s social Rube Goldberg machine.
Evidence and accusations tumble while we’re relentlessly teased about What Actually Happened to Ellie all those years ago. Eventually, it stops being about the objective truth and more about a nebulous look at the constructed realities we all live in—something that’s enhanced when you’re in an echo chamber like a small town. The facts don’t matter when everyone knows what happened. This idea never quite comes together in the film, partially because there’s not enough time nor space for it to bubble underneath its more conventional crime mystery, but a harsher, headier, more True Detective-like version of the story sometimes simmers to the top.
I’d love to see a miniseries that digs into Harper’s Kiewarra, giving ample backstory to its residents and restructuring its storytelling elements to better focus the warring forces of the internal and external. Perhaps that’s what it would take for The Dry’s impressively shot climax to mesh with the rest of its narrative; for its intriguing themes of guilt, memory and forgiveness to fully emerge; for its denouement to move you rather than exhaust you. As is, The Dry’s condensed yet unfocused, by-the-numbers drama might be fine enough, but those looking for a truly great telling of this story may feel that justice wasn’t served.
Director: Robert Connolly
Writers: Harry Cripps, Robert Connolly
Stars: Eric Bana, Genevieve O’Reilly, Keir O’Donnell, John Polson
Release Date: May 21, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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