It’s great seeing Eric Bana not just getting a leading role, but getting a really meaty one in a movie that lets him show why he’s such an underrated actor. “The Dry”, an Australian thriller from director Robert Connolly, marks Bana’s first feature film appearance since 2017. Written by Connolly and Harry Cripps, it’s an adaptation of Jane Harper’s 2016 crime novel of the same name about a man unexpectedly thrust into the middle of a brutal crime case and forced to reckon with a buried mystery from his past.
Connolly begins by locking us into his setting – the once thriving farm town of Kiewarra now decimated by a crippling drought (we learn it hasn’t rained in 324 days). What’s left of the economically depressed community now lives among dried-up riverbeds, sun-scorched fields, and the ever-present threat of bushfires. DP Stefan Duscio opens the film by panning over the dry barren landscape, his camera slowly moving across the cracked earth and endless acres of dusty parched wheat before honing in on a remote farmhouse. As the haunting cries of a baby echoes in the background, Duscio takes us inside where we make a gruesome discovery.
Bana plays Aaron Falk, a federal agent living in Melbourne who returns to his hometown of Kiewarra for the first time in over twenty years. He’s there to attend the funeral of a childhood friend named Luke (played in flashbacks by Martin Dingle-Wall). The story goes Luke murdered his wife and young son but left his infant child alive. He then went out near a dried-up pond and shot himself. No one in town questions it save for Luke’s grieving parents (Bruce Spence and Julia Blake). After the funeral they plead with Aaron to look into the case and see what he can find. He reluctantly agrees.
Aaron begins working with jittery and inexperienced local police sergeant Greg Raco (Keir O’Donnell) who is happy to have some help with the case. Aaron also reconnects with an old friend Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly). But not everyone in Kiewarra is happy to have him back. Not only do they resent him digging around in what they believe is a cut-and-dry double murder-suicide, but Aaron’s presence rekindles old suspicions that he was responsible for the death of a classmate named Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt) twenty years earlier.
This two-pronged story actually flows together nicely thanks to Connolly’s moody slow-burn approach which gives plenty of time to the characters and to sorting out the dual mysteries. On one hand the struggling townsfolk are still reeling from the present day tragedy. On the other you have the hard feelings and animosity rooted in the town’s troubled past and exacerbated by twenty years of lies, deception, and buried secrets. For some locals Aaron’s return causes those old wounds to fester. Meanwhile Aaron has to finally deal with the circumstances that led to him to leave Kiewarra in the first place.
Equally vital to the story are the flashbacks we get to Aaron’s teen years which flesh out his friendships with the bullish Luke, the tender Gretchen, and the troubled Ellie. Connolly expertly grafts these scenes into his main story, using them to feed us information and methodically fill in pieces to his puzzle. And the performances from the young cast call back to a happier much different Kiewarra. In fact even the cinematography stresses how things have changed. The flashbacks have an almost idyllic glow and highlight a time when the grass was green and muddy water reached the riverbanks. It’s a sharp contrast both physically and figuratively to the present day’s dry arid terrain.
“The Dry” isn’t a particularly original idea but it features enough fresh touches to give it its own unique identity. The whole thing is anchored by a terrific Eric Bana, weathered and stoic yet sensitive and empathetic. He plays his character at the just the right temperature, sinking into the stark backdrops and mixing well with the exceptional supporting players. He’s never been better. The story doesn’t shoot for the big showy climax and it ends a little abruptly. But for a movie that puts mood, atmosphere, and characters ahead of big twists and turns, it kinda makes sense. “The Dry” opens May 21st in theaters and on VOD.