Review: THE DRY, Small Bushfires Everywhere

Eric Bana stars in a crime drama, directed by Robert Connolly.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: THE DRY, Small Bushfires Everywhere

Based on Jane Harper’s bestselling, award-winning 2016 mystery-thriller novel, The Dry, a contemporary, Australian-set mystery-thriller/crime-drama, gives onetime A-list actor Eric Bana, not just a much-needed lead role, one missing from a career that’s noticeably slowed down over the last ten years, but a multi-layered one that fully leverages talent once in high demand by Hollywood studios (Hulk, Troy, and Munich in a remarkable two-year span).

Bana delivers a finely cailbraited, material-elevating portrayal of a conflicted police detective grappling with the still unresolved demise of a high-school friend twenty years ago and the possible murder-suicide of another friend in the near past.

The Dry opens, however, not with Bana’s character, Aaron Folk, a Melbourne-based Federal Police officer, but on his former hometown, Kiewarra, a secret-laden farming community hit by a drought nearing the one-year mark. For an agricultural community like Kiewarra, drought means blighted crops or no crops at all and the prospect of economic ruin and devastation.

That alone makes the alleged murder-suicide involving Aaron’s high-school friend, Luke Hadler (Martin Dingle Wall), Luke’s wife Karen (Rosanna Lockhart), and their preteen son, Billy (Jarvis Mitchell), both tragic and, at least on one level, understandable, leaving Luke’s bereaved parents, Barb (Julia Blake) and Gerry (Bruce Spence), eager for a returning Aaron to investigate the circumstances surrounding the alleged murder-suicide and possibly clear their son’s name.

Initially reluctant to take a case with personal stakes and without official jurisdiction, Aaron eventually relents and teams up with a raw, inexperienced Kiewarra police officer, Greg Raco (Keir O’Donnell), to begin methodically investigating everything from Luke and Karen’s finances to Karen’s workplace, the elementary school, and Karen’s immediate supervisor, Scott Whitlam (John Polson). Aaron also crosses paths with another high-school friend, Gretchen Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly).

Despite its small-town nature, Kiewarra contains more than its fair share of secretive and/or surly suspects, including Luke and Karen’s neighbors, Mal Deacon (William Zappa), and Mal's nephew, Grant Dow (Matt Nable). Grant also functions as a link to Aaron and Luke’s past, Grant’s cousin, Ellie Deacon (BeBe Bettencourt), Aaron and Luke’s high school friend, the shared object of their romantic affection, and a drowning victim who perished under mysterious circumstances. Ellie’s death implicated Aaron, forcing him to leave Kiewarra.

Working from a restrained script he co-wrote with Harry Cripps, writer-director Robert Connolly (Paper Planes, Balibo) interweaves Aaron’s present-day investigation into Luke’s death, his ostracism and mistreatment by the locals who still blame him for Ellie’s death, and the virtual flood of twenty-year-old memories before and immediately after the discovery of Elle’s body in the river. The Dry subsequently unfolds in roughly two, unequal timelines, ultimately culminating in a double-revelation that should deliver more emotional heft or catharsis than it actually does. That issue is primarily a function of Connolly’s decision to stubbornly employ a double-stranded narrative structure that ultimately undermines the core emotional drama and the narrative stakes.

As redundant and momentum-sapping as the flashbacks eventually become, they’re made tolerable thanks to a dedicated young cast portraying a high-school-aged Aaron (Joe Klocek), Luke (Sam Corlett), Gretchen (Claude Scott-Mitchell), and the ill-fated Elle. There’s continuity in their performances with their older iterations without turning into simple imitation. For all the film’s other, non-negligible plusses, though, The Dry belongs to Connolly’s crisp, assured direction that emphasizes landscape and character and more importantly, to Eric Bana’s grounded, committed performance that should remind producers of Bana’s criminal underuse over the last decade.

The Dry opens in theaters and on VOD today (May 21st, 2021).

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Eric BanaJane HarperKeir O'DonnellMatt NableRobert Connelly

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