An Iraq War vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder returns home to a hardscrabble existence in West Texas with predictably bad results in “The Dry Land.” Debuting writer-director Ryan Piers Williams struggles to find fresh dramatic variations on a familiar (and sadly cyclical) American tragedy, and relies on trite melodramatic approaches to make his point that vets’ biggest wounds are mental. Marketing and audience interest will be centered on a hard-working, talented cast, led by strong unknown actor Ryan O’Nan, doing their best in difficult circumstances. B.O. on all fronts looks dim.
James (O’Nan) arrives in El Paso and is greeted by adoring wife Sara (America Ferrera) and pal Michael (Jason Ritter), but it’s not the usual flag-waving welcome for a war vet. James and Sara live in a trailer out in the sticks, but Sara tries her best to maintain a happy home. As soon as James examines his securely stored pistol and loads it, though, this is a home destined for bad times. The scene is also emblematic of the problems dogging the pic, featuring many moments that telegraph action or character behavior.
The surprise welcoming party for James, including sister Susie (June Diane Raphael) and Sara’s father David (Benito Martinez), ends in awkward exchanges, but James manages to get a job at David’s meat-packing company. There, he’s assigned to work with Michael and Joe (Evan Jones) in the plant’s slaughterhouse, which Williams films with unfettered realism.
A drunken brawl with Joe, who looks like trouble the second he comes onscreen, is the start of James’ downhill slide, confirming the film’s linear course. James’ violent PTSD-triggered outbursts are such a shock to Sara that she leaves to stay with her folks, and his blocked memory of a truck explosion he survived in Iraq is the impetus to visit Henry (Diego Klattenhoff), a severely injured buddy, at Walter Reed Army Hospital.
A detour to see another unit pal, Raymond (Wilmer Valderrama), is an excuse for some mild comic relief, but the meeting with Henry, who explains the terrible facts of what James has forgotten, is the heavyhanded means to ensure a climactic standoff that could have ended more darkly than it does.
The pic applies a melodramatic sledgehammer to the real issue of PTSD, and the combination of crude storytelling manipulation with undistinguished filmmaking proves counterproductive. Editing is full of hiccups and odd timing, and the dominant shooting style — handheld camera setups and wide-angle lenses — lacks imagination.
As in so many midlevel, serious-minded indie films, the acting towers over everything else. O’Nan’s eyes seem to literally project James wartime traumas, while his scenes with Ritter, Klattenhoff, Raphael and Martinez pop with authenticity. Valderrama is limited by a calculated role, and Ferrara, though warm, is given too little to work with.
Adding to the indie cliches is a strumming guitar score by Dean Parks. Location choices in El Paso and New Mexico lend pic a background more fascinating than the foreground drama.