The Dry is a pretty passable adaptation of a fairly readable novel – it’s not going to seriously disappoint any fans of the book but it never quite blooms into a film on its own term either. For those who haven’t read the crime thriller that took Australian readers by storm in 2016, Jane Harper’s debut revolves around Federal Police Agent Aaron Folk, played here by Eric Bana, who returns to his home town of Kiewarra, in Central Victoria, to investigate two murders. The first takes place in the present – the apparent murder-suicide of Aaron’s best friend Luke Hadler, who appears to have shot his wife and son before shooting himself in turn. The second takes place in the past – the drowning of Aaron and Luke’s best friend Ellie Deacon, played BeBe Bettencourt. With Luke and Ellie dead, Aaron only has Gretchen, played by Genevieve O’Reilly, the fourth member of their adolescent friendship circle, to lean on for support, as the Hadler family appeal to him to prove that Luke didn’t kill his family, or himself.
All of this takes place against the ongoing drought in Central Victoria, bolstered here by an event that hadn’t yet occurred when the novel was published – the catastrophic 2019 bushfires. We arrive in Kiewarra during the opening credit sequence, which unfolds against the first in a series of sweeping aerial shots that seem modelled on Roger Deakins’ work with Denis Villeneuve – beautiful compositions that transform the parched landscape into a series of arid abstractions. As an intertitle introduces us to Kiewarra, we’re also informed that it’s been 324 days without rain, foregrounding the drought as a brooding, maleficent presence that quickly feels like the main criminal perpetrator here, since both crimes are set against dried-up waterbeds. In the present, Luke’s body is found in the midst of a great salt pan where he and Aaron used to swim as children, now bone-dry and eerily vacant from the air. In the past, Ellie’s body was found in the local river, where the drought’s impact is most tangible in the present, since it’s also totally dry, a deep gorge undulating like a wound through the land.
Since we shift to Kiewarra immediately, there’s no real backstory for Aaron – we meet him in situ, getting to know his character gradually through the different twists and turns of the investigation. Although he resumes his friendship with Gretchen, and strikes up a working relationship with Sergeant Greg Raco, played by Keir O’Donnell, he’s remote by nature, although his remoteness feels more pronounced here than in the book, as if Connolly were trying to retain Harper’s third-person detachment but had over-compensated a little too far. That leads to one of the biggest departures from the book – the nature of the investigation and the depiction of the crime scene, which in Harper’s hands is spatially rich, painting a vivid and detailed picture of the Hadler household, right down to an evocative segment of camera footage that doesn’t ever make its way into the film version. Yet Connolly’s screenplay largely is devoid of the forensic spatiality of the novel, doubling down on Aaron’s quiet judgement of character in an attempt to naturalise a simple fact – that he’s severely underwritten.
To some extent, however, this remote quality also improves on the book, since it helps to tone down some of the more lurid Aussie touches. There’s a real art to getting Australian lexicon right, on both stage and screen – you don’t want to just ignore it, or subsume it into a slightly relaxed Englishness, but at the same time you don’t want to ham it up either. Harper’s novel often opted for the latter, and while she does have considerable experience as a rural journalist, her prose style often felt like the worst possible version of an inner-city journalist trying to craft the salt-of-the-earth sincerity of the Australian farmer. Connolly’s version cuts back on that juiced-up vernacular, perhaps inadvertently, due to its greater straining for seriousness, but the effect is still refreshing, even if the relatively diverse cast does finally converge on the same blokey horizon, in the same way as Tim Winton’s novels.
That straining for seriousness is very much the signature of The Dry, and it works up to a point, especially when it comes to Connolly’s depiction of Kiewarra itself. The town already feels evacuated due to the drought, the encroaching bushfires, and the rise of remote farming, producing “farms with no people, no need for towns.” As a result, there’s no real sense of community – we never see more than a handful of people, while the closest we get to a crowd shot is an aerial perspective of the Murtoa Cemetery. The solipsistic focus on Aaron works quite well to capture this decline in a rural public sphere, especially during the late-night ebbs of the town – the low-energy, downtempo moments when Aaron returns to the pub, or leaves the pub, in the wee small hours. The Dry is at its strongest when the starkness and emptiness of the town collapses into the (literally) ambient and unseen threats on its doorstep – most beautifully in a hushed scene when Aaron and Gretchen caress each other on the pub verandah, while staring at a slightly red horizon that takes a few moments to announce itself.
Yet the solemnity of the drought ultimately gets in the way of pacing in The Dry, which is unsure whether it wants to be a message film or a crime thriller – or is unsure about how to be both. Time and again, the perkiness that sustains the best thrillers is subsumed back into a solipsistic seriousness, meaning that the dynamism mainly comes from the flashbacks that periodically pop into the action, providing the only real respite from the plodding plot points unfolding in the present. Even these are pretty deterministic at first, dutifully shifting us back to the past whenever Connolly needs to add resonance or information about the main narrative. At times, it simply feels like we’re witnessing a single crime, so symmetrically do the sequences in the past sync up with what is happening (or not happening) in the present.
It’s quite artful, then, that the past and present stories don’t meet up in any way. Not only that, but the mass murderer turns out to be a person who has arrived in Kiewarra relatively recently, meaning he’s not even connected to the deep history of the town that the flashbacks conjure up. Instead, he’s presented as an outcrop of the climate itself, confessing to the murders at the very moment he lights himself on fire in the middle of a bone-dry forest – a disclosure so volatile that it transforms him into an embodiment of the bushfires at the very moment he enunciates it. For a brief beat, its seems like Connolly, and Harper, will allow the second subplot, contained in the flashbacks, to completely unravel away from the present, and remain in the enigmatic recesses of time, incapable of every being satisfactorily resolved.
This would have been the more Gothic route to take, and would have given the flashback structure a real panache, at least in this third act. It’s disappointing then, that after this brief reprieve, Connolly returns to a condensed fourth act in which the flashbacks become even more deterministic than before. In a sustained flashback sequence, Aaron simply intuits Ellie’s last hours, which unfold as a pastiche of Jasper Jones, completely undoing the lingering eeriness of her death. After a very original turn when it comes to the primary crime, this final sequence feels really drab, both structurally and narratively, especially since we never quite emerge from this flashback. In the end, then, The Dry is hesitant in the manner of so much mainstream Australian cinema – a study in tall poppy syndrome that fears its own flamboyances, and discounts its most original moments as soon as it articulates them, which is perhaps why it feels so oddly emergent, unwilling to ever quite back itself to really shine.