Wednesday, May 12, 2021

IFFBoston 2021.05: The Dry

I think America was roughly fifteen minutes into the pandemic before people started talking about not wanting to see masks, isolation, distancing, etc. reflected in entertainment, either as a way to pin a date down or as a metaphor, and it's been kind of odd to watch it play out on television as the likes of 911 and Law & Order try to feel current but also watchable afterward, and it doesn't always work. Australia has by and large dodged that bullet - not as completely as New Zealand, but orders of magnitude better than it's done in the USA pre-vaccination - but I wonder whether the heat waves would be seen the same way.

At any rate, this movie is all sort of my thing and should start hitting theaters next Friday, which means we'll have three consecutive weekends of movies where wildfires or the threat thereof, are a major part of the danger - The Water Man last weekend, Those Who Wish Me Dead next, and then this the week after. It's a weird coincidence, especially considering how the pandemic has shuffled release dates over the past year and into the future, but a thoroughly relevant one as both California and Australia have had some horrific fire seasons recently, and for all we know they won't be slowing down any time soon. Given where the movie industry is, one wonders if it's just going to be a more omnipresent thing that works its way into more of our entertainment.

(Fills in Amazon link that none of you are going to click, sees Jane Harper has written a second Aaron Falk novel, and hopes like heck that Eric Bana is up for another go.)

The Dry

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 May 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

Early on in The Dry, there's a subtitle specifying that it's been 324 days since the last rain in the town of Kiewarra, and I wonder whether that was the inspiration for the story or just something the filmmakers couldn't avoid, given how bad the drought and heat waves have been in Australia in recent years. Either way, it's a way to add some color to a somewhat dour mystery.

Our sleuth is Aaron Falk (Eric Bana), a member of Australia's Federal Police Force who has recently broken a major financial case. He probably had no real intention of ever returning to the farming community where he lived as a boy - even if it is nice to see old friend Gretchen (Genevieve O'Reilly) again - and it would be completely inappropriate from him to investigate the murder-suicide old friend Luke Hadler was apparently involved in. But for as much as Luke's mother Barb (Julia Blake) thinks that maybe he can find something in the farm's books that would exonerate her son, his father Gerry (Bruce Spence) has gnawing doubts, as he's fairly sure that Luke didn't tell the whole truth when his girlfriend Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt) drowned twenty years ago. Most in town are more liable to look at Aaron where that incident is concerned, but local deputy Greg Raco (Keir O'Donnell) wasn't there then and doesn't particularly mind Aaron giving everything a second look.

Director and co-writer Robert Connolly have a neat little nested-mystery setup here, built in such a way that there's a good story to be had even if the most obvious connection between them - and thus the default explanation for both incidents - is true. It's compelling enough that even as Raco points out a crucial bit of evidence that would seem to cast doubt on Luke as the killer and enough characters are introduced in the present to make the viewer look closer, the impulse is still there to look at it more as an ensemble drama about how one maybe doesn't know anyone, or how secrets everyone knows can fester in a small town. It's a clever structure, full of red herrings which nevertheless seem essential even when revealed as such; it gives both the problem-solving and emotional halves of the brain something to do without making the other unimportant or over-complicated.

The drought also makes the difference between the two timelines striking, even if I'm not completely certain that Luke's body is found in the dried-up river where Ellie drowned (the implication is delicious, though). Kiewarra circa 1991 is filled with greens and blues, right up until Ellie's death, when the light shifts and everything gets darker. The present is all bleached sand and dried out, leafless trees; even the opening where the Hadler farmhouse briefly seems like it's in the middle of a haven of green is a fake-out before a grisly crime scene. There's a different feel to the relative emptiness of the town in the two periods, an undercurrent of how various factors from climate change to corrupt development are hurting towns like this.

Pieces are kept mysterious enough that Falk can easily seem a cipher, but Eric Bana does good work in giving him a sort of insider-outsider nervousness that reads a lot of ways - a kind of abrasive confidence in his early scenes with Raco that also says he knows he shouldn't be there, the non-specific guilt that can sometimes be pinpointed, and the right bit of happiness to push all that halfway aside when Gretchen greets him warmly. Genevieve O'Reilly plays the opposite sides of those scenes nicely, and puts a little bit more of a twist into the scenes when it looks like she might be a suspect. The crew of young actors playing their younger selves maybe doesn't entirely look like them, but Joe Klocek certainly catches the sort of earnest vibe that could believably be beaten down into what we see out of Bana, and Sam Corlett establishes enough about Luke that one can extrapolate some but not entirely to the present. BeBe Bettencourt is the standout in that group, though, carrying the whole load for Ellie and making her feel important enough that her death would blow this hole in the community. The rest of the cast is terrifically solid in parts that all need to be immediately understood but could potentially hold secrets, and Keir O'Donnell is sneaky-impressive as the cop who is not on Falk's level but also quite respectable. There's a fun scene when he reacts to the phrase "shooting rabbits" where the audience can feel him catching up, and the shift can make a viewer lick their lips.

There's a nifty climax as well, a tense confrontation that nevertheless feels like something new and doesn't shift the feel of what has been a nice, slow simmer for a couple of hours. Connolly and company deliver a mystery that's more than just a puzzle and a drama that benefits from the crime story's focus.

Also at eFilmCritic

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