The barren earth surrounding a drought-stricken Aussie town provides fertile ground for mystery, suspense and punchy emotional drama in “The Dry.” This enthralling adaptation of Jane Harper’s international bestseller stars a spot-on Eric Bana as a city detective whose investigation of an apparent murder-suicide in his hometown triggers renewed suspicion about his involvement in a mysterious death that’s haunted the community for two decades. Expertly directed and co-written by respected filmmaker Robert Connolly (“Balibo,” “Paper Planes”), “The Dry” has all the character intrigue, clever plot twists and red herrings to keep viewers guessing. It should become a sizeable summer hit when released in local cinemas on Jan. 1. Broad international streaming exposure is assured.
Headlining his first Aussie feature since 2007’s “Romulus, My Father,” Bana is perfectly cast as Federal Agent Aaron Falk. A dedicated detective based in Melbourne, Aaron hasn’t set foot in hometown Kiewarra since departing abruptly following the still-unsolved death of high school friend Ellie Deacon (BeBe Bettencourt) some 20 years ago. The once-thriving rural town is now an economically distressed and socially damaged dustbowl that’s been in drought for a decade and hasn’t seen a drop of rain in 324 days.
Aaron’s drawn back to Kiewarra by the death of another childhood friend. It seems that Luke Hadler killed his wife and child before turning the gun on himself. The scenario is accepted by almost everyone in town and will strike a somber chord with local audiences in light of similar real-life tragedies in drought-devastated parts of Australia in recent times.
Determined to leave immediately following the funeral, Aaron’s convinced to stay when Luke’s distraught parents, Barb and Gerry (Julia Blake, Bruce Spence), implore him to examine aspects of the case that may clear their son’s name. After looking at Luke’s financial records and talking to honest but inexperienced local cop Greg Raco (Keir O’Donnell), Aaron gets the feeling that things may not be as clear-cut as they appear. Another reason to stay is re-connecting with Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly, excellent), the fourth member of Aaron’s tight-knit teenage friendship group and now a single mother with a checkered past.
The plot crackles along nicely with Aaron asking questions and uncovering dark secrets that suggest several townsfolk had the motive and means to commit murder. Already a juicy whodunit with a gallery of plausible suspects, “The Dry” acquires another layer of intrigue when Ellie’s embittered father Mal (William Zappa) and her spiteful cousin Grant (Matt Nable) ignite long-simmering community suspicion that Aaron killed Ellie all those years ago.
Artfully woven into the central story by editing aces Nick Meyers (“Sweet Country”) and Alexandre de Franceschi (“Lion”) are flashbacks to teenage Aaron’s (Joe Klocek) relationships with his domineering, alpha-male buddy Luke (Sam Corlett), sensitive soul Gretchen (Claude Scott-Mitchell) and the troubled Ellie. With a grainy picture quality resembling 16mm-to-35mm film blow-ups from yesteryear, these sequences deliver powerful emotion and simmering tension as divided loyalties come into play in the lead-up to Ellie’s tragic fate.
Bana anchors the smartly written drama wonderfully well. Imbuing his steely, no-nonsense character with just the right amount of insecurity and introspection, Bana ensures that audiences will be glued to everything Aaron Falk does and says. A uniformly splendid cast includes James Frecheville (“Animal Kingdom”) as evasive young farmer Jamie Sullivan, and Aussie actor-turned director John Polson (on screen for the first time since “Mission: Impossible 2”) as school principal Scott Whitlam.
As with Harper’s novel, the contradictory nature of Aussies embracing romantic visions of their vast continent while holding deep fears of its dry interior is never far from the surface here. Cinematographer Stefan Duscio (“The Invisible Man”) captures this conflict with stark widescreen images of Kiewarra’s arid brown present and its lush green past. The town’s declining fortunes and the weight upon Aaron’s shoulders is memorably visualized in scenes of him walking in the dry, cavernous bed of the once-magnificent river he swam in joyfully as a youth with Luke, Gretchen and Ellie.