Robert Connolly’s new film, The Dry, is a mystery at heart: An investigation into a small-town murder-suicide that inevitably kicks up the dust of other peoples’ secrets and picks the scabs on barely-healed wounds. Yet for all its depiction of police procedure and the ins and outs of investigation, it’s this other stuff — much of it backstory — that radiates from the film’s center. The circumstances of the crime, specifically the secrets of the man who ostensibly committed it, bleed into matters of the heart, and of memory. And of a sense of guilt that far surpasses this crime in itself. Yet the resolution of that crime — the actual, substantive answer to the whodunit — is almost secondary. Petty, really. Whereas what cannot be resolved by such tragedies looms — nearly suffocates.
The movie, based on the 2016 bestseller by Jane Harper, stars Eric Bana as Aaron Falk, a federal police officer called back to his hometown of Kiewarra, in Australia’s Western Victoria, by a stark, accusatory letter. “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.” Luke: Aaron’s childhood friend, now dead, apparently by his own hand. So are his wife and oldest child. Only an infant remains. Well — and that lie, that known unknown that drives Aaron back home and leaves the facade of his adult successes as cracked and parched as the water-sapped terrain of Kiewarra.
The Dry is set amid a long drought — a dry spell that has drawn on for nearly a year, leaving so many of the landmarks of Aaron and Luke’s youth, including the creek that was once the site of a death in which both men were implicated as teenagers, completely dry. The body of the now-dead Luke was found in what was once a pond, terrain now moistened only by the spattering of blood his body left behind.
Suffice it to say that it’s not easy to return to a town in which you are still broadly believed, by those who remember, to be a murderer. Not even if you’re now a federal officer. Aaron’s not even supposed to be investigating his old friend’s murder-suicide. But of course his one-night stay gets extended, then extended again, as the details don’t quite add up — and as the memories of that earlier mystery, of just what happened between him, Luke, their friend Gretchen (played, as an adult, by Genevieve O’Reilly), and their deceased friend Ellie flood back.
The Dry is full of memories, suspicions, little rabbit holes of the mind, and at its most gripping, is all the more interesting for it. Connolly steeps the proceedings in a sense of climate both emotional and weathered; broad, suggestive shots of the land from the sky, and the dryness below, read like an emotional template. It’s all just kindling, laying in wait for the inevitable destructive spark.
What this means for the movie is, ultimately, the spilling out of many secrets — a few too many, really, for only but the most directly relevant revelations to carry much weight. Gambling, a secret gay romance, a paternity surprise — you almost need a full season of television for any of it to really offer the kick in the ass, the punch in the gut, that each of these threads deserves. But there are grace notes, largely among the actors. Bana and O’Reilly make their roles, which don’t always go to the most surprising of places, work well enough that they carry us through the movie on solid footing. Joe Klocek, as the young Aaron we see in flashbacks, is impressively vulnerable. Matt Nable makes for a good local antagonist. Keir O’Donnell, playing local cop Greg Raco, offers a believable mix of authority and inexperience — and even better, perhaps best of all, is Miranda Tapsell as Rita, Greg’s wife, who comes off as the sincere backbone of their growing family.
The Dry is solid and appreciably sad but, for all the virtues of its rough symbolism and intriguing backstory, almost too jampacked with discovery for its own good. On the other hand, for the “answer” to the truth of what happened to appear so small in the midst of secret dramas so overwhelming is a canny and effective choice, one that the movie nicely bears out. When the fire comes, as it must, the story hardly ends there. This makes sense — for these lives, and for the movie trying to capture them.