Australian cinema is oftentimes its own worst enemy, and it comes down to a multitude of reasons as to why. Primarily Australian cinemas biggest sin is that the largest and most prominent domestic films are shameless tourist advertisements like “Palm Beach” and “Top End Wedding”. Any and all films Screen Australia have produced in this vein have been heavily flawed and barely worthwhile. However, in-between our homegrown misfires, lie a collection of rare gems that prove Australia to be home to stories the rest of the world could never tell. Films like “Picnic at Hanging Rock” or “Lion”, even “The Castle”, these films capture our culture as it is to us, not how Screen Australia would like it presented to tourists. Robert Connelly newest feature “The Dry” is one such gem which displays our culture with pitch-perfect, often unsettling, realism.
Based on the New York Times bestselling novel by Jane Harper, The Dry is an unnerving thriller set firmly in the Victorian outback in the fictional town of Kiewarra. There we join Aaron Falk (Eric Bana and Joe Klocek) a federal police officer who was raised there now returning twenty years after his dramatic departure. Unfortunately, it’s tragedy which beckons him home. He arrives to join residents at the funeral of his childhood best friend, Luke (portrayed as a teen by Sam Corlett), and his wife and son, both of whom Luke is accused of murdering before committing suicide. Aaron, plagued by memories of his youth telling of when another one of his three closest friends, Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt), his teenage love, was found dead in a river, must now try to find the truth in a town hiding more than anyone could bear to find out.
The dilemma for Aaron quickly becomes clear, he is desperate to prove that his closest friend isn’t a killer, but the weight upon his shoulders becomes much more amplified than that. Luke and Aaron shared a secret, one pertaining to Ellie’s death twenty years earlier. And soon those hidden truths twist themselves into doubt, if Luke could be involved back then, what’s stopping him from being so twisted now. Stuck in an almost literal melting pot during bush fire season Aaron must then convince the town and himself that Kiewarra’s latest horror is not as it seems.
This all plays out in the vast and spectacular environment of regional Victoria, which through the lens of Stefan Duscio becomes utterly sublime. The landscapes of The Dry are its greatest asset. It grounds all the high drama in an area so wrought by destructive natural forces that the tragic losses of life are almost just another element of the curse that seems to plague the town. Aaron does plenty of soul-searching in the wilderness, trying to piece together how someone as charming and beautiful as Ellie could die when they seemed so ready to be together, and aching to know if the secret he keeps could solve the mystery.
Ultimately the harsh environment moulds his visage, he’s hard and stoic, often visibly keeping his emotions withdrawn, leaving only a bleakness. Here is where Connelly weaves his most potent moments, cutting between the adult Aaron grasping for any answers and the teen Aaron hooked on life and enjoying it to the fullest with his three friends unknowingly on the brink of catastrophe.
Of course, that means one childhood friend remains, her name is Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly and Claude Scott-Mitchell), and in the years following Ellie’s death she dated Luke on and off before he met his wife and she fell pregnant to another man no longer around. In the present, she represents a living ghost to Aaron, someone he desperately wants to hold onto but can never manage to grasp; a forgotten memory. O’Reilly develops this into a refined and nuanced performance, one that keeps the film flowing across its perhaps very slightly overlong runtime of just under 2 hours. Alongside hers, Bana’s is an interesting performance. It’s never easy to capture a character who wraps everything up inside.
So rarely does Aaron emote that his one burst of anger at the lack of water running from his shower comes as quite a shock. However, I do think there is one scene Bana ties all his work together. There’s a moment where Aaron has nothing left to do but to soak in a particular revelation, and the sheer weight of it is masterfully captured in his eyes as he gazes out to the natural wonder that surrounds him in his isolation. He is left only with his memories, and instead of running from them or breaking down, he simply sits and breaths and stares into the infinite. It may not be the flashiest performance, but during this moment, it is a powerful one.
The Dry is a film that perfectly encapsulates what gritty Australian storytelling should be, bound to nature and wrapped in secrecy, and thanks to an abundance of each, it’s well on its way to becoming an Aussie classic.
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