‘The Dry’: a well-packaged, high-end Australian murder-mystery

Hot times: Eric Bana plays a federal police officer haunted by his past in ‘The Dry’.

THE DRY ***1/2 (117 minutes) MA
Fans of the murder-mystery genre will get their fill and then some in Robert Connolly’s beautifully shot outback opus, a ripping crime drama that offers two captivating whodunits for the price of one.

Adapted by Connolly and Harry Cripps from Jane Harper’s best-selling 2016 novel, the story tells of sullen federal police officer Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) who returns to his drought-baked home town of Kiewerra to attend the funeral of his long-time friend Luke (Martin Dingle Wall) who apparently killed himself after shooting his wife and son.

Falk is about as welcome in the town as is the drought owing to a long-standing mystery over the true fate of a teenage girl Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt) decades earlier. Her death was deemed a suicide, but Falk and Luke have long been suspected of having been involved and possibly responsible.

At the behest of Luke’s distraught parents (Bruce Spence and Julia Blake) Falk re-opens the investigation, liaising with the local cop (Keir O’Donnell) as they reassess the official version of what happened.

Inevitably, Falk is confronted by long simmering resentment over the death of Ellie, with lengthy flashbacks taking us back to his younger self (played by Joe Klocek) and the tranquil, secluded spot where the tragic event occurred.

Steadily paced with a strong sense of place evoked by sweeping aerial shots of the parched landscape, Connolly (Balibo; Paper Planes; The Bank) fashions a superb showcase of slow reveals, keeping us locked into Falk’s perspective thus making his journey of discovery automatically intriguing.

He also maintains consistent dual focus on both narratives, which seamlessly fold into each other as Falk becomes ever more entwined in the lives of the townsfolk. It’s a tough trick to pull off, the best precedent being 1993’s The Remains of the Day.

Performances throughout are solid, with Matt Nable chiming in with some especially punchy support. Bana maintains a controlled presence in a tense circumstance, straining to maintain a cool head in a hot location haunted by a past he has no choice to confront.

The Dry is an accomplished piece of work and a prime example of the type of commercially-minded genre film Australia could well afford to make more of, especially given how lean a year 2020 has been for local cinema.

As well-directed as it is, however, The Dry does occasionally have a formula feel as it dutifully follows the conventions of the murder-mystery genre. Consequently, there’s a peppering of moments that will seem very familiar to fans of the genre.

There are even things we could see less of, such as police officers staring into computer screens spooling through CCTV footage looking for clues.

The ubiquity of cameras has sapped some of the spirit from 21st century crime stories; the legwork of your traditional gumshoe has largely been replaced by Google searches and examining the content of USB sticks. We see such scenes in TV police shows a lot, and The Dry has its share.

Still, we all love a police procedural and The Dry is an exceptionally good one, brimming with top-shelf performances, great cinematography (by Stefan Duscio) and a tense, heated atmosphere keeping you on edge with the sense that things could go up at any moment.

Footnote: How shall the film fare in the fragile, COVID-constricted movie market? Chances are The Dry will pop in a big way.

Evidence shows that people are eager to get back to the cinema after spending most of the year in lockdown, and what better offering could there be than a terrific Australian film designed to engage and entertain?

Kudos, too, by the way, for the fact that The Dry has been so well-marketed. Whadaya know? Filmgoers will actually know that an Australian film is out. How weird is that?

The Dry opens 1 January, 2021.

Check out the interview with Eric Bana and Robert Connolly: