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The Dry Land

The Dry Land

Rated R, 92 min. Directed by Ryan Piers Williams. Starring Ryan O'Nan, America Ferrera, Jason Ritter, Wilmer Valderrama, Melissa Leo, Diego Klattenhoff, Ethan Suplee, Ana Claudia Talancón, Barry Shabaka Henley.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 13, 2010

The Dry Land populates its vast and desiccated landscape with terrific performances and heavy helpings of dread. Writer/director Williams’ debut feature film tells the story of a soldier’s return from Iraq and his trouble acknowledging his problem with post-traumatic stress disorder and reintegrating into the small-town West Texas life he left behind. Even in the decades since Coming Home in 1978 (and The Best Years of Our Lives decades before that), the story of some veterans’ difficult re-entry into civilian life is not a story frequently seen onscreen. Because Williams’ film tries to cover so much of everything that is not addressed elsewhere in our culture, The Dry Land occasionally feels as though too many symptoms and plot details are loaded into a single portrait. Yet O’Nan’s performance as the soldier James is stirring in its silent stoicism, frightening in its emotional outbursts, and moving in its portrayal of ultimate desolation. From the modest homecoming, which opens the film, and his strained intimacy with best friend Michael (Ritter) and wife Sarah (Ferrera, who is also one of the film’s producers) to his repressed feelings about working in his father-in-law’s slaughterhouse (who ever thought this job was a good idea?) and his mother’s cancer (Leo, hacking up her lungs through her dialogue), James is like a live grenade that seems poised to go off at some unexpected moment. That he suffers from amnesia regarding the attack that wiped out most of his unit is also a bad sign. Ominous portents cloud all his behavior, so it comes as little surprise when James drops everything to pick up his best buddy Raymond (Valderrama, who’s terrific) and drive to Walter Reed to visit their injured comrade (Klattenhoff). Once there, the reunion turns in a flash from awkward predictability to volatile uproar that continues through to the end of the movie. Williams (who attended school in Austin for a couple of years before finishing his degree in California) is an impressive director; he creates a lot of drama and palpable mood from sparse elements and languorous pacing. Williams’ script, however, suffers from its inclusion of too many details that become blind alleys. Gavin Kelly’s cinematography provides just the right backdrop for this tale; the film’s expansive exteriors and attentive close-ups often express things that the characters cannot. The Dry Land, which premiered at the Sundance FIlm Festival, is a strong first film, and with a better-honed script, Williams should prove to be a director to watch. (For more on the film, see "Coming Home: 'The Dry Land,'" May 14.)
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