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Jane Harper’s best-selling novel The Dry is one of those books that feels written with a feature film adaptation in mind: a genre narrative (crime mystery-thriller) that’s pacey, plot-driven and full of dialogue, with a central location ripe for cinematic imagery. Extensive use of flashbacks is built into its structure, and they’re even presented in italics as if to say, “This is where the cuts and scene changes go”.
Director Robert Connolly’s adaptation is a very gripping and polished film, commandingly performed and directed, with an airtight sense of tonal cohesiveness – despite lots of, well, air in the frame, derived from countless mid- and long-shots capturing barren exterior locations in a fictitious Australian outback town. Written by Connolly and Harry Cripps, the script – like Harper’s book – hinges on dual mysteries: one concerning the recent and the other a distant past; both involving deaths that were potentially but not necessarily murders.
Binding the threads together is the protagonist Aaron Falk (Eric Bana), a Australian federal police agent who returns to his fictional hometown of Kiewarra following the apparent murder-suicide of his old friend Luke (Martin Dingle Wall), who it seems killed his wife and child before turning the gun on himself. Clipped introductory images show the aftermath of the incident, leading into location-establishing shots of the town presented in dusty yellowish tones that go on to define the film’s aesthetic.
By contrast, brief fleeting visions of Melbourne are rendered steely blue, with Bana doing that thing that actors often do when positioned in skyscrapers: staring pensively through the glass at the concrete jungle around them, with a look on his face that screams “I’m in deep thought”. (Is it possible, I wonder, for characters in dramas and thrillers to not be in deep thought when looking out a floor-to-ceiling window? Is it possible they’re just thinking “I’m hungry, is it time for lunch yet?”)
Falk hits the road, arriving at Kiewarra for his friend’s funeral, where the priest mentions a “devastating drought” – his eulogy placing The Dry in a context of Australian films that contemplate droughts (others include the 1920 silent film The Breaking of the Drought, John Heyer’s influential 1954 documentary The Back of Beyond, the Disneyified family movie Bushfire Moon and the recent A Sunburnt Christmas).
The dryness in Connolly’s film communicates that things could catch fire at any point: literally, given Kiewarra is a danger area for bushfires, but in other ways too – for instance the mental temperature of the locals, many of whom react in hostile ways to Falk’s presence.
The deceased man’s parents (Julia Blake and Bruce Spence) are convinced he didn’t do it and ask Falk to investigate. When he does accusations are thrown back at him relating to the unsolved death many years ago of Falk’s teenage friend Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt). Falk was implicated in her passing, with a general consensus among locals that he lied about his whereabouts on the day of her death. This is voiced throughout the film, shading the protagonist in interesting ways, making him a morally murky figure – far from a clearcut hero, and possibly, in relation to those past events, a legitimate suspect.
Falk soaks up the stories, attitudes and personalities of the townspeople, among them Sergeant Greg Raco (Keir O’Donnell), Ellie’s belligerent father Mal (William Zappa) and cousin Grant (Matt Nable), an uncooperative farmer (James Frecheville), the school principal (John Polson) and Falk’s longtime friend and sort-of love interest Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly). Bana’s performance delivers a morosely convincing take on the “bad cop” trope, his character also fleshed out through visions of a younger version of himself, played by Joe Klocek, in those regular jumps back to the past.
Connolly (whose oeuvre also includes Balibo, Paper Planes and the miniseries Barracuda) understands how heavily the novel relies on flashbacks – a very cinematic device – and calibrates the film accordingly. While flashbacks have literary and theatrical precedents, as Maureen Turim explained in her book Flashbacks in Film (which I plucked from my shelf after returning home from the screening), the term emerged only after the advent of cinema, which provided visceral and decisive new ways to, as Turim puts it, “return to a narrative past inserted in a narrative present”.
In this narrative past BeBe Bettencourt is very engaging as Ellie: personable but mysterious, relatable but ghost-like, navigating the outback and the schoolyard with a Picnic at Hanging Rock vibe, as a doomed teen with vaguely apparition-like qualities. All the supporting performances are bang on, adding a psychological intensity implied but not dictated by Stefan Duscio’s cinematography; despite the arid settings the real heat comes from the humans.
Harper’s book was skilfully constructed, but has a bit of an airport novel vibe, particularly towards the end – which, loaded with the inevitable red herrings and reveals, feels a little like a box-ticking exercise. The film remains rock solid throughout: taut, tough and tense, matching wide-open spaces with uncomfortably close drama.
It’s not the environment that terrorises, as it does in classics like Wake in Fright, but the people who move across it – with their hidden agendas, clashing motives and obscured pasts.
• The Dry opens in Australian cinemas on Friday 1 January
Source: The Guardian
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