A dusty, volatile little town in the middle of nowhere, this slice of Australia is going to burst into flames at any minute. That’s just a fact of life in this fictional place. The whole area around Kiewarra has been parched in a drought for at least the last 10 years, and 324 days have passed since the last drop of rain when the bodies are found at the Hadler house in what seems to be the first part of a murder-suicide.
Karen is lying flat in the front hallway from a shotgun blast to the chest, while her son Billy is dead in his room around the corner (Karen’s baby girl was mercifully spared). Luke Hadler’s corpse is found a ways down the road, and everyone assumes that he killed his wife and kids before offing himself. A lot of folks in Kiewarra still think Luke was responsible for the Deacon girl’s drowning 20 years ago, and that it was only a matter of time before he got violent again. But no one wanted to look into that too closely — life in the hinterlands is already hard enough. Now the river where she died has run dry, and the whole town finds itself surrounded by decades of buried tinder that could burn Kiewarra down to its bones from the tiniest spark.
Maybe that’s why Federal Agent Aaron Falk (a stoic and haunted Eric Bana) looks so reluctant to leave his Melbourne high-rise and go back home to bury his childhood best friend. Aaron probably would’ve brushed the whole thing off if not for the postcard he received in the mail: “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.” Hard to say no to that.
Needless to say, Robert Connolly’s “The Dry” is a bit juicier than its title would suggest. Adapted from Jane Harper’s popular novel of the same name (it was a major pandemic-era hit down under when it welcomed Australians back to theaters on New Year’s Day), this arid murder-mystery is sunbaked in all manner of local flavor, but anyone drawn to the similar likes of “Top of the Lake” or “Mare of Easttown” should feel right at home.
That isn’t entirely to the advantage of a two-hour film that struggles to find time for its ghosts. Unevenly split between the killings that bring Aaron back to town and the one that inspired him to run away from home in the first place, Connolly and Harry Cripps’ screenplay doesn’t have the kindling it needs to melt hard evidence together with unresolved memories. The result is a raw but straightforward detective yarn that feels nagged by the past rather than bedeviled by it, when even a pinch of the spectral uncertainty that Peter Weir found down the road in “Picnic at Hanging Rock” would have made it easier to appreciate why Aaron’s childhood wounds still feel so fresh.
Nevertheless, “The Dry” is easy to sink into for a movie that’s as hard and dense as the scorched earth around Kiewarra. The salty opening stretches wrench a lot of mileage from the “fish out of water” energy that Aaron brings home with him, though the way his old neighbors try to ignore him at Luke’s funeral — where his suit makes it impossible to look at anyone else — suggests more of an “uninvited bee at a picnic” vibe. Luke’s parents are convinced their son didn’t kill his wife and kids, and see Aaron as their only hope of uncovering the truth.
At the same time, however, they seem to share the town’s suspicions that Luke was somehow involved in the death of Ellie Deacon 20 years earlier, which came at the end of a magical summer that she and her friend Genevieve spent making out with Luke and Aaron down at the lush green river that Kiewarra used to have. Flashbacks to those innocent days crop up from time to time, all of them kissed with the halcyon glow of uncertain youth. Young Ellie (an alluringly spacey BeBe Bettencourt) had her secrets, and Luke (Sam Corlett) was a dead ringer for River Phoenix before the land went dry, but all we really gather from these trips in the way-back machine is that Aaron genuinely doesn’t seem to know why his crush turned up dead one day.
Bana delivers a strong performance as an unsolved case unto himself, though the slow churn of this two-pronged whodunnit story keeps him penned in for much of the film’s runtime. He’s often seen behind a pane of glass, as if walled off from his past even as it bleeds into his present. Only a handful of moments allow Aaron to put down his detective’s hat — the most loaded of which find him rekindling a little something with Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly), who feels like the last woman standing. There’s a rich “what are we doing?” vibe to their romance that helps keep “The Dry” from growing drab as Aaron and local cop Greg Raco (Keir O’Donnell) question a parade of suspects who offer more in the way of desiccated atmosphere than compelling story detail (though it’s nice to see “Swimfan” director John Polson in front of the camera for the first time since “Mission: Impossible 2”). At one point, Ellie’s senile father snorts that he wouldn’t give someone “the steam from my piss.”
That line sticks with you almost as much as the character’s bitter forgetfulness, which seems like a blessing in disguise for someone living in a veritable tinderbox of dark secrets. Neither of the film’s central mysteries ever build much in the way of momentum, but they’re both carried along by a swell of deep sadness that crests in ways that are all the more wounding for their predictability. It hurts to see how the answers were right in front of Aaron’s face the whole time — part of an intergenerational pattern he couldn’t see once he left town and lost the thread. “People are really good at looking away” is how one Kiewarra native puts it, and no one is better at it than Aaron. The real mystery is whether he’ll be willing to let all of that pain burn away.
“The Dry” is now playing in theaters and available to rent on VOD.