On the surface, The Dry seems like the kind of murder-mystery you’ve seen dozens of times before. A big-city detective stirs up noise in a quiet town when he arrives to investigate a triple homicide. Although it has a familiar setup, the film stands out with its rich characters and haunted setting — land lost to time, its growth stunted by drought and demons of the past.
The drought feels like a punishment for the mysterious drowning of a teenage girl named Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt) 20 years prior. Her death looms over the Australian farming community of Kiewarra, especially in the wake of the Hadler family murder-suicide, seemingly at the hands of the father, Luke (Martin Dingle Wall), who was friends with Ellie.
Their mutual friend, Aaron (Eric Bana), comes home for the funeral, angering those who still think he and Luke had something to do with Ellie’s death. Luke’s parents pressure him to stick around and dig deeper into the case. He slowly tears through the town like one of the tornadoes swirling around its bone-dry fields.
Adapting Jane Harper’s bestselling 2016 novel, screenwriter Harry Cripps and co-writer / director Robert Connolly effectively cast an air of suspicion around Aaron and Luke. They make you question whether Aaron is a trustworthy detective with a genuine hunch or if he’s still that scared kid committed to sweeping Luke’s dirt under the rug. When he interrogates residents, he gives off a glimmer of guilt, as if he has no right to question them.
We soon learn that no one in the town is without secrets. One of the most memorable scenes finds a resident’s alibi falling apart and revealing the sexual relationship they were hiding, which would’ve cleared them of the crime more convincingly than their lie. This disturbing moment suggests that in a community as small and tight-knit as Kiewarra, seemingly harmless personal information can be considered deadly.
With its drought-ravaged setting and troubled, mysterious characters, The Dry recalls the neo-noir classic Chinatown, but Kiewarra isn’t treated as some seedy underbelly crawling with creeps. As Connolly said in an interview with The Guardian: “There’s a version of these stories that’s like Deliverance — ‘urban character gets stuck in dark, horrific regional place’ — and that wasn’t our intention. We had to look deep into the heart of these damaged characters and the tough luck they’ve had, and find the humanity.”
Bana’s performance embodies the tension and aching humanity in the town. He moves delicately, navigating Kiewarra as if he’s crossing a rickety rope bridge. Along the way, he makes us feel the enormous, lifelong weight of Aaron’s simmering guilt and anger. But even when the film reaches a fever pitch, Bana stays subdued, keeping Aaron quietly implosive. This is Bana’s best performance yet.
Keir O’Donnell provides a perfect foil to Bana’s character as by-the-book police sergeant Greg Raco. And Genevieve O’Reilly delivers a tender, lived-in performance as Aaron’s old friend, Gretchen. You can feel the heft of their history together.
Through expansive landscape shots and vivid flashbacks, Connolly makes the film feel at once epic and intimate. Although it’s available to stream, The Dry is worth seeing in the theater for its otherworldly setting and eerie atmosphere. Australian audiences are certainly flocking to see it, as it’s currently the 14th highest-grossing Australian film of all time, surpassing such popular films as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
The Dry breaks its slow-burn pace rather abruptly and jarringly rushes its revelations in the end. But that’s a minor nit to pick in an otherwise effective thriller that will linger with you long after it’s over.