At the request of Luke’s parents, Aaron reluctantly agrees to reopen the investigation, off-duty, while grappling with the reason he left Kiewarra years ago: the townspeople blame him for the mysterious death of a young girl.
For me, the most striking aspect of THE DRY is its vivid depiction of rural Australian life, which stands among the greatest ever shown on film. Much like Wake in Fright did for the Outback, Connolly’s film takes the small, drought-ridden farming communities between city and desert and fills them with life and details. Massive dust devils swirl across arid paddocks, rabbits dash behind silos, mourners somehow find fresh flowers to leave on graves.
Despite being a fictional amalgamation of over a dozen towns in regional Victoria, Kiewarra is a wonderfully realised, distinctly Australian vision shared by the entire crew. From the beautiful cinematography regularly utilising expansive overhead shots of brown farmland and parched riverbeds, to the pitch-perfect location scouting and production design; is there anything more emblematic of small-town Australia than a motel with a pub and pokies on the ground floor? Each locale evokes a sense of history to the characters, which allows the town to truly feel like somewhere you might pass through on a road trip through the state.
Yet THE DRY is more than a tourism ad, as the script by Connolly and Harry Cripps imbues the citizens of Kiewarra with similar depth. Considering the traumatic events that many of the secondary characters have been through, it’s no wonder that many have given up hope by the time Aaron returns; several even ask “What are you still doing here?” throughout the course of the film. The simmering tensions and reopening of old wounds are captivating to watch, with slow burns finally erupting in the second and third acts.
The supporting cast are excellent, though in my opinion Genevieve O’Reilly and Matt Nable are the standouts. As Gretchen, an old friend of Aaron’s with a personal connection to both the recent deaths and the one from years ago, O’Reilly is given the task of filling in many of the gaps between flashback sequences, wistfully explaining the past to viewers without feeling like dull exposition. Gretchen is a welcome presence throughout the film, providing a calm foil for Aaron (until he pushes her too far), and a much needed model for how to move on with one’s life.
Meanwhile, Grant (Nable), a cousin of the girl from the earlier tragedy, is utterly consumed by his grief. Before this link is revealed to the audience, it’s easy to dismiss Grant’s snarkiness as general frustration, he’s a farmer in a town which hasn’t seen rain for a year, after all. However, he quickly becomes obsessed with reigniting the rumour of Aaron’s involvement in his cousin’s death, and driving the latter out of town. Grant often appears to be the closest thing THE DRY has to a traditional antagonist, yet Nable subtly conveys his desperation to find an explanation and resolution to his loss. In one outburst, he proclaims that Aaron has never really known him, as though the inverse of this weren’t also true.
Nevertheless, THE DRY is a showcase for Bana. He brings a stoic seriousness to Aaron suiting his methodical approach to investigations, and his past. I can’t recall Bana ever being asked to do so much without words, but he proves more than up to the task: as Aaron moves through town, running errands for Luke’s parents, following leads, or meeting with Gretchen, the viewer realises how lonely his past has made him. He’s charming, but guarded, unwilling to talk about his life beyond his relationships with the deceased. Indeed, Aaron’s ‘quiet nice guy’ demeanour is particularly brilliant as it forces the viewer to consider whether he could have an ulterior motive.
In addition to its excellent depictions of Australia, and portrayals of grief, THE DRY is incredibly satisfying as a crime drama. The notion of having to solve two cases simultaneously always reads like an engaging challenge for genre enthusiasts, and the script offers plenty of clues and red herrings for eagle-eyed viewers. Most importantly, the answers given to the audience feel fair; at the risk of giving too much away, I’ll simply say that the resolution to the case of Grant’s cousin is the perfect, emotional coda to this story.
THE DRY is the kind of film that I’m going to be amazed by for some time. It makes telling a nuanced, engaging story in a memorable setting look effortless, while allowing its cast to shine. It’s not just one of my favourite films of the year, or a highlight in Eric Bana’s filmography, but a project that Australian cinema should aspire to emulate in the future.