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Film Review: The Past Haunts the Present in Australian Drama ‘The Dry’

A decades-past mystery comes back to haunt the small town of Kiewarra when a new tragedy befalls the community in The Dry, the new Australian drama from director Robert Connolly. Based on an immensely popular 2016 novel of the same name by Jane Harper, the film stars Eric Bana as Aaron Falk, a Federal Agent who has moved away to the big city, and must return back to his hometown when his childhood friend Luke has killed (or allegedly killed) his wife and child, before taking his own life. Aaron’s return unearths old trauma in the community from the horrific death of his and Luke’s friend Ellie when they were teenagers, a death that never sat right with several of the townsfolk, as Aaron and Luke’s alibis for her time of death were flimsy at best. 

Adapted for the screen by Connolly and Harry Cripps, the story draws parallel narratives between the timelines of the past and the present, keeping the audience engaged in both storylines as they drive towards an eventual convergence. Along the way we explore the characters of this town, and the pain that haunts not only Aaron but also all of these people he left behind when he moved away soon after Ellie’s death. Filmed in Australia in the Wimmera Mallee region of Victoria, The Dry has an authentically Australian feel to it that embeds the audience within this land in a way that couldn’t have been imitated if they had shot outside of the continent The location breathes life and texture into this land and its characters, drawing you further into the community that is so vital telling this story. 

The “dry” of the title refers to a drought that has plagued this farming land for ages, making this whole area tinder that’s ready to ignite at any moment. It’s a fitting metaphor for how the tension within the town has risen to a breaking point, with Aaron’s arrival back home the spark it needed to set off the kind of fire we’ve seen all too much of in recent years in areas like this. That connection to real life events only makes the suspense of the film even more palpable. Connolly expertly navigates the tone of the piece, never once stepping on the gas harder than he needs to. Emotions are often laced just underneath the surface, plain to see yet withheld just enough to where you can feel the characters piling that weight on themselves internally until they eventually break. 

This is certainly true of Aaron, whose confusion about what happened in his past leads him to take on the case of figuring out what really happened with Luke and his family. The fear for Aaron is that if Luke really did commit this heinous crime it might mean that he killed Ellie all those years ago, and Aaron has been covering for him this whole time without knowing it. Looking into the past gives us a glimpse into the warning signs that might have been there, allowing us to form the same questions that Aaron has been living with for decades. Bana wears those years with a finely-tuned performance, a stoicism that belies the fear and frustration burning inside of him. Seeing the Australian actor given such a rich, full-bodied character to explore is a reminder of just how incredible an actor he can be when given material that can measure up to his skill. 

The film hits its peak in the development of the relationship between Aaron and Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly), a local friend who was in the tight quartet with Aaron, Luke, and Ellie in their youth, While Aaron had left, Gretchen was stuck behind with the trauma of what had happened, having to figure out how to cope with the loss of Ellie all on her own without her friend to support her. O’Reilly gives a remarkably layered performance, breathing full life into a character that in many similar stories could have been undercooked background noise. Here instead, she is the crucial element through which we see how Aaron’s return has shifted the community to a point where all of these secrets can no longer remain buried. Bana and O’Reilly do wonders when they share the screen together, never more so than in a climactic moment where a betrayal of trust leads to an explosive confrontation that shows how you can never fully return home again. 

Things have shifted in this community irrevocably, and those secrets that people tried to keep hidden all of these years were bound to catch up. Just as Mother Nature has had a hold on this small town, their own demons have plagued these people for so long that it exists as almost a ghost town version of what it used to be. Healing in the present can only be done by confronting the past, and this story builds that bridge effectively with a crescendo that lands a wallop in the final act. It’s a catharsis of everything that had been building up to that point, a necessary push forward from the pain that had been held onto for so long. 

SCORE: ★★1/2

The Dry will be available in theaters and on VOD starting May 21st 

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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