Review: ‘The Dry,’ starring Eric Bana

June 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Eric Bana, Keir O’Donnell and Matt Nable in “The Dry” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Dry”

Directed by Robert Connolly

Culture Representation: Taking place in Kiewarra, Australia, and briefly in Melbourne, the dramatic film “The Dry” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one Aborigine and one Asian) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A federal law-enforcement agent goes back to his hometown to investigate what happened in a murder case, and his investigation dredges up a tragedy from his past.

Culture Audience: “The Dry” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching suspenseful crime dramas that address issues of economic stress and social conflicts.

BeBe Bettencourt, Claude Scott-Mitchell, Sam Corlett and Joe Klocek in “The Dry” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

When most people who’ve moved away from their hometowns go back to visit, they usually don’t have to go back to a community where they were under suspicion for murder. But those are the circumstances faced by Australian federal law-enforcement agent Aaron Falk (played by Eric Bana) in the gripping crime drama “The Dry,” which is based on Jane Harper’s 2016 novel of the same name. More than being a murder mystery, “The Dry” adeptly depicts emotional baggage that people carry and how a hometown visit can be fraught with secrets, lies and resentment in a community teetering on economic ruin.

Directed by Robert Connolly (who co-wrote “The Dry” screenplay with Harry Cripps), “The Dry” begins with the aftermath of a grisly murder scene that’s the catalyst for one of the story’s two mysteries. The other mystery took place 20 years earlier, and it involved the drowning death of a teenage girl. The movie keeps viewers guessing until the last 15 minutes of this nearly two-hour film over whether or not these two mysteries are connected.

Aaron (who is a never-married bachelor with no kids) has a career in Melbourne as a respected investigator in federal law enforcement. He returns to his hometown of Kiewarra, which has been experiencing a drought for nearly a year and has recently been rocked by a scandalous crime that has been ruled a murder-suicide by local law enforcement. Luke Hadler (played by Martin Dingle Wall) apparently shot to death his wife Karen Hadler (played by Rosanna Lockhart) and their son Billy (played by Jarvis Mitchell), who was about 7 or 8 years old, before Luke apparently shot himself.

Through photos and flashbacks, the movie shows glimpses of what the family was like when they were alive. Luke and Karen had a baby daughter named Charlotte (played by Audrey Moore), who was spared from the massacre. Charlotte now lives with Luke’s parents Gerry Hadler (played by Bruce Spence) and Barb Hadler (played by Julia Blake), who are certain that Luke did not commit this heinous crime.

Luke was a childhood friend of Aaron, who only plans to be in Kiewarra for the funeral of Luke, Karen and Billy. Aaron never knew Karen and Billy, and he’s still in shock over the idea that Luke would commit a murder-suicide. In the beginning of the movie, it’s shown that Aaron was somewhat reluctant to go back to Kiewarra. However, Gerry called Aaron to be at the funeral. And not long after that, Aaron got a mysterious card in the mail with this ominous message: “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.”

There’s a reason why Aaron doesn’t want to be reminded of his past life in Kiewarra: When he was in his late teens, he and Luke were suspected of causing the drowning death of their teenage friend Ellie Deacon. Aaron and Luke, who both denied having anything do with the drowning, were questioned by police but never arrested because there was no proof against them. And now, the community thinks that Luke murdered Luke’s wife and son before killing himself.

The minister’s sermon at the funeral gets some quietly uncomfortable reactions when he mentions Luke (along with Karen and Billy) in the thoughts and prayers that should go to everyone who died in the tragedy. At a wake in Gerry and Barb’s home, many members of the community are there to pay their respects to Karen and Billy, but not to Luke. The atmosphere is filled with more than the usual tension and anxiety at a wake, because no one really knows how to talk about Luke when he’s the one who’s been blamed for causing this tragedy.

Some people seem to feel sympathy for Luke, because they think he might have had some mental illness that caused him to murder. But most people at the funeral and at the wake don’t feel sorry for Luke and only feel sympathy for Karen, Billy and orphaned Charlotte. Luke’s parents seem to be the only ones in town who openly state that Luke was innocent of the crime.

One person at the wake who doesn’t hesitate to badmouth Luke is Grant Dow (played by Matt Nable), a cousin of Ellie Deacon, the teenager who drowned 20 years earlier. Grant has an outburst at the wake, where he calls Luke a “murderer.” Luke’s parents Gerry and Barb are deeply offended. And shortly after the wake, Gerry and Barb implore Aaron to stay in Kiewarra to investigate this murder case and clear Luke’s name.

Aaron is hesitant to take the case because he’s feeling uncomfortable being back in Kiewarra. But he agrees to it because he also finds it hard to believe that Luke committed the crime, and he knows what it’s like to be suspected of a crime despite proclaiming innocence. During this investigation, Kiewarra (which is a primarily agricultural community) has been simmering with tension because the drought has had a devastating impact on the local economy. It’s mentioned in the beginning of the story that it’s been 324 days since it last rained.

In a story about someone going back to a hometown, there’s usually a subplot of that person seeing a former love interest. “The Dry” is no exception. When Aaron and Luke were teenagers, Luke had a girlfriend named Gretchen, but there are hints in the story that Aaron was secretly attracted to Gretchen. After Aaron and Luke fell under suspicion for Ellie’s death, Aaron and his widower father Erik Falk (played by Jeremy Lindsay Taylor, in a flashback) abruptly moved away from Kiewarra.

And as what often happens with people who knew each other in high school, Gretchen and Aaron just never stayed in touch with each other. The movie has several flashbacks of teenage Aaron (played by Joe Klocek), Gretchen (played by Claude Scott-Mitchell), Luke (played by Sam Corlett) and Ellie (played by played by BeBe Bettencourt) on double dates with each other, including the fateful day that Ellie drowned. In these flashbacks, it’s shown that Ellie was attracted to Aaron, and he had feelings for her too, but perhaps not as strong as the feelings that Aaron had for Gretchen.

Luke is portrayed as the extroverted “alpha male” of the group, while Aaron was the more introverted “beta male.” Gretchen seems to share Luke’s adventurous spirit, while Ellie is more of the bookish type, similar to Aaron’s personality. During the flashback scenes, Ellie sings what appears to be one of her favorite songs: The Church’s 1988 international hit “Under the Milky Way.” This song is used as a mood piece during various parts of the film.

Gretchen (played by Genevieve O’Reilly) is now a farmer and a single mother to two underage sons. (Gretchen is reluctant to talk about her children’s father.) And when Gretchen and Aaron see each other for the first time in more than 20 years, romantic sparks fly between them. Aaron tries to keep a professional distance from Gretchen during his investigation, but adult viewers can easily predict that Aaron and Gretchen are eventually going to do something about the sexual tension between them.

Several people cross paths with Aaron during this investigation. Viewers will be intrigued to try and figure out which one might or might be crucial in solving either or both mysteries. And the movie also keeps viewers guessing over whether or not Aaron really did have something to with Ellie’s death.

The other characters in the story include:

  • Greg Raco (played by Keir O’Donnell), the local police sergeant in Kiewarra who is the chief investigator in the deaths of Luke, Karen and Billy.
  • Rita Raco (played by Miranda Tapsell), Greg’s pregnant wife who is worried about the hazards of her husband’s job.
  • Jamie Sullivan (played by James Frecheville), a local property manager who was with Luke on the afternoon that the murders took place later that day.
  • Scott Whitlam (played by John Polson), the headmaster of Kiewarra Primary School, where murder victim Karen was an administrator who handled accounting.
  • Sandra Whitlam (played by Renee Lim), Scott’s wife whose daughter (played by Angela Rosewarne) was a friend of Luke and Karen’s son Billy.
  • Mal Deacon (played by William Zappa), Ellie’s father who is very angry and bitter over Ellie’s death.

Jamie has a solid alibi for the time period that the murders happened, so he is not a viable suspect. Police segreant Greg is helpful to Aaron during the investigation, and he seems determined to prove that he’s not a country bumpkin cop. Meanwhile, Aaron has a few unpleasant run-ins with Ellie’s father Mal and Ellie’s cousin Grant, who taunt and insult Aaron for daring to being in Kiewarra again.

Mal and Grant are very vocal in telling other people that Aaron and/or Luke killed Ellie and that both of them covered up the crime. These suspicions have been fueled because Aaron and Luke were the last known people to see Ellie alive. Aaron and Luke were each other’s alibi during the time that Ellie is believed to have drowned, but certain people think that the alibi was fabricated.

As a trained investigator of crime, Aaron thinks that in all likelihood, the killings that took place in Luke and Karen’s home were committed by someone who knew the family and someone who’s still in the community. He doesn’t think that a random stranger came to town to commit these murders. And so, the list of likely suspects isn’t that large in this story.

“The Dry” isn’t a typical police procedural, because Aaron is in an awkward position of being a both a native and an outsider in Kiewarra. His visit has brought back painful memories for him that might or might not cloud his judgment in the investigation. And there’s also a question that any reasonable person might ask: Can Aaron really be objective in investigating a murder case involving his former best friend, especially when he and that best friend were suspected of causing someone else’s death?

It’s a lot of personal history and past trauma to unpack, but fortunately “The Dry” doesn’t get too heavy-handed with its approach. A lot of the film’s nuance has to do with Bana’s quietly effective performance as someone who has run from his past but is now forced to confront it. The other cast members also give credible performances, but the movie’s emotional core is with Bana’s depiction of Aaron. Bana delivers a very good balancing act of someone who wants to remain stoic on the outside but who can’t ignore the turmoil that he has on the inside.

The crime-solving aspects of the story are also done well, although after a while, it’s fairly easy to figure things out in the Hadler family murder mystery, based on how certain likely suspects act. The mystery of the Hadler family murders is much easier to deduct than the mystery of Ellie’s drowning. Both of these mysteries’ revelations at the end of the movie are not entirely shocking, but they’re definitely realistic. In “The Dry,” the drought isn’t the only thing plaguing the community, which has been caught in a stagnation of gossip and stereotypes over who should and shouldn’t be trusted.

IFC Films released “The Dry” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 21, 2021. The movie was released in Australia on January 1, 2021.