' ' Cinema Romantico: The Dry

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Dry

I have seen enough movies in my time to know that when one begins with a title card stipulating it has been nearly 365 days since rain that, come the conclusion, precipitation will pour down from the sky. And yet, Robert Connolly’s mystery thriller “The Dry” ends just as arid as it begins, which is not so much a spoiler as a consumer-friendly tip, making plain the movie as unbeholden to such antiquated cinematic notions of setups and payoffs. Granted, “The Dry” spends much of its run time devoted to unraveling a mystery that, frankly, speaking, Connolly the director seems less interested in than Connolly the screenwriter (he co-wrote with Harry Crips, adapting from Jane Harper’s novel). For all the emergent suspects and motivations, this puzzle fails to stand out as much as the atmosphere and the mood, epitomized in the Australian locale gleaned in the title, aerial shots of cracked land and even a brief shot of dust devils that, rather than prompting a dramatic sequence, simply effuses a sense of eerie foreboding, all brought home in Eric Bana’s simmering performance. It’s a weird irony that Bana, who tends to be best roles in utilizing his kind of twitchy charisma, has too often been stranded in roles where he just comes across...dry. But here, despite underplaying every step of the way, he becomes the movie’s mythical thundercloud, amassing rage without ever erupting. 

Bana is Aaron Falk, a federal agent, returning to his hometown of Kiewarra after a 20-year absence to attend the funeral of Luke, a childhood friend who apparently killed his wife and son before turning the gun on himself. When Aaron first arrives, Connolly’s camera captures him on the edge of frames and in the back of rooms, pointedly on his own. Indeed, he soon becomes clear he is unwanted there, a past memory haunting not just him but the town itself, when 17-year Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt) died under mysterious circumstances pertaining to Aaron and possibly Luke too. Ellie’s fate becomes “The Dry’s” second murder mystery, running parallel to the present-day, glimpsed throughout the movie in flashback. These flashbacks, though, while occasionally proffering crucial information, are not rendered in a typically convenient expository manner. They are frequent, virtually omnipresent, and often not even so much flashbacks as just little flashes, moments running through Aaron’s head as he goes about everyday life, an effective illustration of how memories can inundate a person, little pangs of grief dogging him at every turn.

More than a murder mystery, really, that’s what “The Dry” is, a character study of grief. There might well be a conflict of interest in Aaron becoming the co-investigator of Luke’s death along with Greg (Keir O’Donnell), the local sergeant starstruck by this hometown fed, he is not getting to the bottom of things so much because of subtle professional skills (Bana shifts from friendly conversation to probing query almost imperceptibly) as his willingness to dredge up the readily apparent. He is threatened by Ellie’s family for showing up and snooping around, true, though “The Dry” makes this point even better in an exchange between Aaron and Greg’s pregnant wife, Rita (Miranda Tapsell) over dinner. She quietly if forcefully points out Greg is an expectant father and that reopening the case rather than letting it remain as-is and closed might bring about harm. It’s not that she’s unsympathetic, not at all, or dismissive of the truth, but in tune to the murky compromises of Kiewarra that allow people to co-exist. This is evident, too, in Aaron reconnecting with his childhood friend Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly), at first a friendly ally but of whom he eventually becomes suspicious, building not to a revelation as much as a sudden disintegration, a moment played with palpable disgust by O’Reilly, a bridge burned. 

The crime-of-the-week sensation of the present-day murder mystery, its result failing to satisfactorily intertwine with the larger idea of grief, not to mention the mystery of the past hinging on information conveniently unearthed at the last second, siphon a little punch from the conclusion. A little, though not all. In a way, the wrap-up’s superficiality, unintentionally or otherwise, feels almost profound given how the resolution brings no closure, epitomized in the agony that Bana visibly still carries on his frame and the rain that never comes, casting The Dry as something close to a Biblical plague.

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