The new Australian thriller The Dry is filled with such an overwhelming sense of grief, of regret and grim foreboding, that you may lose sight of the central mystery for stretches of the movie. That’s not to suggest that Robert Connolly’s film can’t function as genre entertainment; on the contrary, it’s a gripping, grisly piece of work. But its emotional emphasis lies elsewhere, beyond the mere ins and outs of who did what where and to whom.
The film was a huge hit in Australia earlier this year, and is now opening in the U.S. in select theaters and on demand via IFC. It follows a federal agent, Aaron Falk (Eric Bana), as he returns after many years to his drought-stricken rural hometown of Kiewarra to look into a ghastly murder-suicide: Apparently, Aaron’s closest friend from childhood, Luke (Martin Dingle-Wall), has shot and killed his wife and son before taking his own life. Nobody quite knows why, and even though there are some telling inconsistencies in the evidence, the struggling town is more than ready to accept the matter as settled.
Aaron’s poking around, in other words, is not particularly welcome — especially given that many in town still believe he was somehow involved in the death of one of his and Luke’s closest friends, Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt), who drowned under suspicious circumstances 20 years ago in the river where, as kids, they spent much of their time. As Aaron investigates the more recent killing, flashbacks slowly reveal what happened between him, Luke, Ellie, and another close friend, Gretchen (played as an adult by the wonderful Genevieve O’Reilly). If Luke was indeed responsible for these killings in the present day, could he also have been responsible for Ellie’s mysterious death — and, if so, does that mean Aaron might have unwittingly enabled his friend in the murder?
It’s a tangle of suspicion, shame, and buried memory, and the land becomes something of a metaphor for the corrosive power of evil as Aaron wanders around this shriveled, devastated community. The drought has turned vast stretches of the area into dry scrub. Anything green appears to have vanished from the earth, and the streets go empty come nightfall. He visits the forest and river where they played as kids and where Ellie died. Now, it’s just dry wasteland, all cracks and dust. An atmosphere of barren dread permeates the film, enhanced immeasurably by Peter Raeburn’s elegantly moody score.
Few performers over the years have been as good at quietly conveying thought as Bana: He has some of the most expressive eyes in the business. While some actors make us wonder what’s going on inside their heads, Bana has an uncanny ability to let us know exactly what’s going on inside his head without uttering a word — thereby pulling us into his characters’ inner conflicts. On the surface, he plays Aaron as a calm, methodical professional, always assessing the situation and the evidence at hand. But there’s a vindictive gleam in his eye as well, and for all his by-the-books approach to the case, there’s a streak of self-destructiveness to this haunted man’s quest for the truth. He may seem sturdy and reliable, but Aaron is a chaos agent at heart — both investigator and avenging angel.
As The Dry proceeds, we learn more about the circumstances around, and the consequences of, Ellie’s death, and we see how the town turned on Aaron and his father. Betrayal and rage, it seems, have festered within him for years, and now he projects the suspicion back onto the town itself. To Aaron, everyone here seems like a potential killer, even those closest to him; a rekindled romance with Gretchen is consumed by both his guilt and his suspicion. (It helps, of course, that the script by Connolly and Harry Cripps, adapting Jane Harper’s novel, expertly deploys several compelling red herrings over the course of the investigation.)
With so many flashbacks and suspects, The Dry could have easily become mired in episodic tedium, but grief is the glue that holds the story together. It’s rare for a mystery to mourn so much with its characters. Usually, such films dose us with a bit of bereavement early on, to set the emotional stakes, and then go along their merry genre way. But the more Aaron investigates, the more sorrow he seems to uncover. By the time the film’s climax rolls around, we get the dutiful revelations, but we don’t really get anything resembling closure. The Dry is a beautiful thriller that leaves us not with explanations, but with overwhelming sadness.