With Hollywood keeping its biggest films out of cinemas until the coronavirus pandemic moves on, it has been an odd heyday for most countries in allowing local features the chance to flourish. Robert Connolly’s haunting crime drama The Dry is a case in point: released without much opposition in Australian theatres, it has gone on to gross in excess of AUD$20 million. So successful has it been that it is still screening in some cinemas despite now being available on home video as well. It deserves every dollar and plaudit: this is an exceptionally directed and performed film, made with care and grounded in maturity. It is grown-up cinema for adults. It deserves a global audience.
Federal police officer Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) returns home to a small rural town when a childhood friend appears to commit a double murder-suicide. It is his first return home in decades, after fleeing the town as a teenager when accused of murdering a girl from school. Facing lingering accusations and prejudice, Falk reluctantly agrees to investigate the killings and prove beyond a doubt that they are what they appear to be.
It is not what The Dry does that makes it such an exceptional film; it is how it does it. Stories of small town mystery are a dime a dozen across most countries’ film industries, with each year bringing its share of successes and failures, innovative hits and moribund also-rans. What makes this particular film so effective is the manner in which it presents a range of elements: setting, characters, pace, and tone.
The town of Kiewarra begins the film more than a year without rain; an ongoing drought that adds texture for foreign audiences but which feels all-too-familiar within Australia. Everything is tinder-dry, faded out to greys, yellows, and browns, harshly bleached by the sun, and dusty with wind and dirt. It is a flat, lonely town with broad horizons and few people on the streets. To anyone that has spent a more than an afternoon in rural Australia, it is immediately familiar. It is a distinctive, uniquely Australian setting. Its population is easily recognisable. Their way of dealing with tragedy, or seeking humour, or relating to neighbours, all feels wholly accurate. It all feels real.
The film closely follows Falk on his unofficial investigation, which begins with the cooperation of the local Sergeant but which soon outstays its welcome. Eric Bana gives the character a relaxed, everyday manner, but he also infuses it with a regretful, secretive quality. The film begins without much detail of Falk’s past at all, and information is slowly teased out through a series of well-placed flashbacks. Joe Klocek is very effective as the younger man, but it is Bana who dominates the film as the older version: professional, thorny, and very gently ambiguous. It is one of the strongest pieces of acting in his career, without easy-to-play flourishes and tics like his celebrated 2000 turn as Mark “Chopper” Reid, and instead relying entirely on stillness and subtlety.
The supporting cast is uniformly strong, including Genevieve O’Reilly as long-time close friend Gretchen, Matt Nable as antagonistic neighbour Grant Dow, Keir O’Donnell as local police officer Greg Raco, and Miranda Tapsell as his wife Rita. There are smaller roles for Bruce Spence and Julia Blake as the parents of the alleged murderer Luke – they only really turn up to set the plot in motion, but they achieve that aim without feeling artificial about it. It is, wall to wall, an excellent cast that brings The Dry to life.
Through direction and screenplay (co-written with Harry Cripps from Jane Harper’s novel) Robert Connolly keeps the film running at a steady but relentless pace. The story never drags and time is not wasted, but at the same time he avoids running at a sprint. Each key character is gradually unveiled and revealed. Each clue and progression in Falk’s investigation is carefully showcased and put in place. It allows for a steady build of tension throughout – both for the present-day murders and the one decades in the past – and rewarding amounts of depth and tone.
It is an exceptional tone at that. The Dry presents a town hollowed out by drought, driven by poor harvests to financial desperation and growing unrest. At its strongest moment Kiewarra feels like a town-as-skeleton, haunted by murders past. Stefan Duscio’s photography captures this tone perfectly, as does Peter Raeburn’s understated musical score.
Some films are great because they are original and inventive, and present brand-new perspectives or ideas to their audience. Some films are great because they offer a fast-paced, colourful thrill ride that pleases an audiences and shows them an exciting time. The very best films are great simply because they do everything right: direction, scripting, acting, design, music – everything aligns perfectly. Everyone involved seems at the top of their game. The Dry is a powerfully effective quiet masterpiece; the best feature in Australian cinemas this year by far.