Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Aussie thriller The Dry proves that you don't need 10 episodes to tell a good small-town mystery

It's townie noir like Mare Of Easttown, in a handy two-hour dose

The Dry
The Dry
Photo: IFC Films

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our inscrutable whims. This week: 2021 is about half over, so we’re looking back on the best movies released this year that we didn’t review.

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The Dry (2020)

The Dry didn’t get a splashy theatrical release this spring, maybe because it centers on the kind of grimly simmering murder mystery that audiences may no longer be accustomed to seeing in the feature-film world. Australian federal agent Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) returns home for the funeral of his childhood friend Luke, who has apparently killed himself after murdering his wife and young son, leaving behind his infant daughter and his elderly parents. Luke’s parents implore Aaron to stick around and look into the matter further, and he reluctantly agrees, despite the many townsfolk who regard him with suspicion because of a teenage incident. Before he blew town for good years earlier, Aaron was suspected in the death of Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt), his girlfriend at the time, though no charges were filed.

In other words, this is a story that currently is more apt to play over eight to 10 hours of prolonged, atmospheric streaming episodes, sometimes followed by a less compelling second-season mystery a year or two later. It’s even got a former next-big-thing actor in the form of Bana, who hasn’t starred in a movie for several years and could probably use a prestige-TV bump. By those standards, The Dry is remarkably concise, even though it runs about two hours with steady but deliberate pacing. It’s an Australian variation on Townie Noir, where a resourceful protagonist is nonetheless hopelessly connected to the secrets and scars of his dead-end hometown. In this case, it’s the fictional farming town of Kiewarra, which has been experiencing a disastrous years-long drought. In keeping with a lot of recent Australian crime pictures, everyone’s outlook feels pretty bleak.

Yet The Dry isn’t a miserable wallow (perhaps in part because all of the best wallowing locations have long dried up). Director Robert Connolly, working with co-writer Harry Cripps to adapt Jane Harper’s 2016 novel, set up a dual-track mystery, as Falk noses around his friend’s recent past and occasionally pauses to recall his own more distant experiences. It’s clear from early on that Falk is lying about something that happened back then, and Bana quietly, expertly plays a man who must seem both decent enough to help his late friend and shifty enough to suspect of doing wrong and keeping mum about it. In part, the movie is about the insidious nature of lying, how it drains the life from people and forms cracks in its wake.

You know, kind of like a drought. Though there are some more typically noirish shadows at the edges of this story, Connolly shoots plenty of scenes in broad daylight, creating atmosphere out of dust, sunglasses, and a bunch of scowling faces. Bana looks out of place to just the right degree, giving off the sense that he’s wandered in from another, less personal potboiler as he struggles to keep his personal history out of his detective work. (As a federal officer not actually assigned to this case but happy to nudge a local cop along with the weight of his badge, Falk is a potent combination of law-enforcement professional and amateur detective.) The Dry may not have the full range of local color of a top-shelf Townie Noir miniseries like Mare Of Easttown, but there’s something alluring about the old-fashioned two-hour approach, how it glimpses many of its characters’ lives, rather than studying them, and evokes the loneliness of wide-open spaces. After so many full-season deep dives, why not change things up with a bit of well-wrought withholding?

Availability: The Dry is now playing in a handful of theaters and is available to rent from a variety of digital outlets.

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