Review: Eric Bana riveting in Aussie crime drama ‘The Dry’

A headline and a letter draw a big city federal agent, Aaron Falk (Eric Bana), back to his hometown of Kiewarra after 20 years away in the compelling Australian crime drama “ The Dry.” His childhood friend Luke (Martin Dingle Wall) is presumed to have murdered his wife and young son before killing himself. Only the infant was spared. A note from Luke’s father, Gerry (Bruce Spence) implores Aaron to come to the funeral, alluding to a lie he knows they told.

Luke’s parents want Aaron to look into it: The mother doesn’t believe that he could have done it; The father worries that he did. And Aaron is reluctant to stay. Twenty years ago, when he was just a teenager, he left the town after one of his and Luke’s friends turned up dead in the lake. Their alibi was suspicious enough to raise doubt and everyone just started assuming that one of them did it.

That lake where she was found and where they used to hang out is dried up now, as are all of the streams and bodies of water in Kiewarra. After a year-long draught, it looks like a desert. The besieged country farming community is well on its way to becoming a ghost town, and there’s the ever-looming threat of a single spark causing a brush fire that will burn everything down. Just because it’s not the most subtle metaphor doesn’t make it any less of a truth that the townspeople also harbor secrets that could destroy them. It’s no wonder that the film is based on a book, written by Jane Harper and published in 2016. Robert Connolly directed and is credited for the adaptation with Harry Cripps.

Aaron is greeted with hostility from some of the longtime residents of Kiewarra. Ellie’s (BeBe Bettencourt) death 20 years age is still an open wound, especially for her father (William Zappa) and brother (Matt Nable). But he soldiers on, working with the very green local cop Greg (Keir O’Donnell) on the investigation. The screenplay does an excellent job of teasing out new leads, many of which are red herrings, while also endearing us to those in this odd little town, like Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly), who rounded out the teenage foursome with Aaron, Luke and Ellie. Gretchen, a single mom and schoolteacher now, has her own theories of what happened then. Gerry worries that the presumed murder-suicide could have been prevented had Luke been held accountable for what happened 20 years ago.

“The Dry” also often cuts back to the days surrounding Ellie’s death, adding tension to the present-day investigation as we wonder whether Luke or Aaron did in fact kill the girl, or play any part in her death. Aaron is a somewhat shy teen and Luke is the volatile alpha, which on paper seems like a simple case but on film, you still harbor doubts.

Bana is excellent as the reluctant outsider —determined, haunted and empathetic — and he’s surrounded by ace character actors. There is some much-needed moments of humor, too, especially with the local bar and hotel owner, and even a little romance teased out. It’s not just a grim murder case and is stronger and more human for it.

Anyone hooked on “Mare of Easttown” and looking for a holdover in between episodes would be well-served by the intrigue of “The Dry.” It’s actually a bit of a wonder that it wasn’t stretched out into a television series itself, but Connolly has a command on the pacing and “The Dry” never feels rushed or undercooked. This is an import that’s worth seeking out.

“The Dry,” an IFC Films release in theaters and on demand, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for violence, and language throughout.” Running time: 117 minutes. Three stars out of four.

MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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