2021, R, 117 min. Directed by Robert Connolly. Starring Eric Bana, Genevieve O'Reilly, BeBe Bettencourt, Keir O'Donnell, John Polson, Sam Corlett, Martin Dingle Wall.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 21, 2021
It's hard to bury secrets in the arid soil, and sand has a bad habit of blowing away, revealing what was covered. That's the heart of The Dry, a hardboiled noir with a psychological twist that stars Eric Bana as Aaron Falk, an Australian Federal Police officer with a lot of baggage from his childhood in the small town of Kiewarra. He carries guilt with him: not for the crime for which he's always been fingered - the death of his school friend Ellie (Bettencourt), who drowned in mysterious circumstances right before he headed away. Instead, it's survivor's guilt, and that's part of what's kept him away for years. It takes another equally grisly death to bring him back: in fact, three. His old friend, Luke (Wall) was found dead with the same shotgun that killed his wife and son in his hands, and everyone's presuming murder-suicide. Falk, of course, isn't saying no, isn't saying yes. But, in classic noir style, the prodigal son returning to kick over the traces isn't going to go down well with everyone.
Set in the dazzling sun of remote farming Australia, The Dry doesn't give its heroes or villains any shadows in which to hide. Instead, as is part and parcel of its crime drama traditions, it's the distance from help that adds an air of menace and malice. It depends greatly on Bana's fractured, wounded urgency as Falk, the protagonist of two novels by award-winning crime novelist Jane Harper. One true villain, it's clear, is the lingering stain of mistrust. It's killing the town as much as the ongoing drought that has turned it from the leafy labyrinth of shady make-out spots and swimming holes of Falk's memories (shown in a series of increasingly bleak flashbacks) into a vista of open spaces. There’s nowhere to hide but also nowhere to run, and Connelly (who directed as well as co-wrote the script) has a clear knack for building up plausible suspects without relying on red herrings. Indeed, what’s most fascinating is how Bana balances Falk’s urges to both solve the crimes and leave old stones unturned, especially when another old friend, Gretchen (O'Reilly) seems involved at some level.
The hero coming home to solve the cold case murder of the missing girl is a detective novel trope, verging on insultingly common. But The Dry has an air of mournfulness that smashes the trite concept of closure. Even if Falk can solve Ellie's murder, and even if he can take the killing weapon out of Luke's hand, it won't bring them back, and Bettencourt's haunting, damaged presence - something Falk only understands with the battered wisdom of age - hangs over the town like a shroud. It’s all built around the same tensions that distinguished Dashiell Hammett’s contributions to detective fiction: that big conspiracies that interweave all evils may be neat, but reality is far more often created as dominos of sorrow topple. Accusations may fall away to solutions, but in The Dry forgiveness and absolution remain eternally divided.