No one can complain that American independent film has ignored the Iraq War. If anything, the subject has been tapped so extensively by documentarians and narrative filmmakers alike that new films about our country’s misadventures in the Middle East are bound to feel awfully familiar. Case in point: The Dry Land, a painfully earnest drama about post-traumatic stress disorder that sticks so closely to the soldiers-coming-home template, writer-director Ryan Piers Williams seems to be diligently working through a checklist of returning-warrior-movie clichés.
In the underwritten lead role, Ryan O’Nan lets sad eyes and a haunted expression do most of his acting as a soldier who has difficulty settling back into small-time Texas life after a traumatic tour of duty. His service in Iraq has left him with persistent, violent nightmares, a guilty conscience, and a pile of unanswered questions about the skirmish that his tormented psyche won’t let him forget—or remember completely. The Dry Land follows O’Nan on a predictable road to bottoming out, as he drinks too much, alienates wife America Ferrera with his moodiness and violent rages, and gets a job in a slaughterhouse, perhaps not the best post-war employment for a man burdened by images of bloodshed and death.
The Dry Land is fundamentally concerned with stoic men who lack the eloquence to express the depth of their psychological torment, and who instead fall back on easy jokes and inane small talk. Williams designs his film as a character study of a man fighting and losing a war within himself, but his character remains an underdeveloped cipher throughout. Seemingly central subplots like his relationship with Ferrera and his post-war job are introduced, then either abandoned entirely, or handled in the most rushed, perfunctory fashion imaginable. Williams’ well-intentioned but dull, inert kitchen-sink melodrama listlessly travels such well-trod terrain that O’Nan won’t be alone in feeling like he’s experiencing the same dispiriting ordeal over and over again.