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.

Review: ‘Never Too Late,’ starring James Cromwell, Shane Jacobson and Jacki Weaver

July 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

James Cromwell, Jack Thompson, Roy Billing and Dennis Waterman in “Never Too Late” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Never Too Late” (2020)

Directed by Mark Lamprell

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Adelaide, South Australia, the comedy “Never Too Late” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and a few black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Four Vietnam War veterans try to break out of their prison-like nursing home.

Culture Audience: “Never Too Late” will appeal primarily to people who like comedies that make senior citizens look like cartoonish buffoons.

James Cromwell and Jacki Weaver in “Never Too Late” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

The filmmakers of the cringeworthy comedy “Never Too Late” should make an apology to the nursing homes of Australia for making these nursing homes look like prisons run by callous and barbaric people. “Never Too Late” (directed by Mark Lamprell and written by Luke Preston) is built around this flimsy premise, which is filled with too many moments that insult viewers’ intelligence. The considerable talents of this movie’s cast are wasted in this film that is dead-set on making almost all of them, especially the senior citizens, look like fools.

“Never Too Late” begins with a voiceover from retired Australian military nurse Norma McCarthy (played by Jacki Weaver) and a montage of what’s supposed to be old Vietnam War photos and footage. Norma says, “For three years, I nursed soldiers in Vietnam. But this story isn’t about me. It’s about the love of my life and the three men who went against all odds to get him back to me. They were known as the Chain Breakers: four young lads full of guts and swagger, a secret elite squad from the U.K., the U.S. and Australia.”

Norma further explains that the Chain Breakers became prisoners of war in Vietnam for 12 months until the four men managed to escape. They all eventually went their separate ways. The leader of the Chain Breakers is Lieutenant Jack Bronson (played by James Cromwell), an American who tends to be bossy and arrogant. He also happens to be the “love of my life” whom Norma speaks fondly about in the opening sequence. We soon find out that Jack was the love who got away from Norma.

Viewers first see the present-day Jack in a wheelchair, and he looks like he’s had a stroke. He has checked himself into the Hogan Hills Retirement Home for Returned Veterans in Adelaide, South Australia. And after he gets a routine exam to test his motor skills (he’s slack-jawed and can barely speak), Jack is wheeled into his assigned room.

As soon as the attendants leave, Jack quickly gets up and walks around as if he’s perfectly healthy. It’s apparent that he was faking his stroke and disabilities. But why? Because he wanted to check into the nursing home, since Norma lives there too. Even though Norma has been corresponding with Jack by letter every week for 50 years, they haven’t seen each other in person during all that time.

Norma was married to a doctor, and she is now a widow who’s checked herself into Hogan Hills. Jack has come to the nursing home to “surprise” Norma. Jack immediately finds Norma by herself in a hallway. (How convenient.) She recognizes him after they haven’t seen each other for 50 years, and they make googly eyes at each other.

But just as Jack is about to ask Norma an important question (we all know what that question will be), an attendant shows up and says that Norma has to leave because she’s being transferred to another nursing home. Jack refuses to let her leave, a slight scuffle ensues, and security attendants are called. Jack and Norma are separated before he can ask her the question.

While “in custody,” Jack is scolded by the nursing home’s stern manager Kim Lin (played by Renee Lim) for faking his disabilities and causing a ruckus. He’s also told that Norma has early stages of dementia and won’t be back at the nursing home for three months. Norma has been taken to a nearby nursing facility called Bay Lodge for experimental treatment of her dementia.

“In three months, she might not remember me,” moans Jack. Thus begins the contrived “race against time” for Jack to reunite with Norma to ask her his big question.

Viewers might wonder, “Why can’t Jack visit Norma in person at this other nursing home?” The answer is because Hogan Hills keeps the residents locked up like prisoners. Doors are locked with access cards that only employees have.

And later in the movie, it gets worse: When someone in the Chain Breakers gets caught trying to leave the nursing home, he is punished by getting strapped tightly to a bed and injected with medication that leaves him in a zonked-out state of mind. This completely illegal imprisonment happens more than once in the movie. Keep in mind that this is a nursing home, but it’s unrealistically run like a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” psychiatric facility, with Kim Lin as Hogan Hills’ version of Nurse Ratched.

There’s even a high chain-link fence around Hogan Hills that Jack discovers while he’s being held in the nursing home. (Obviously, he didn’t do his homework in finding out what kind of facility this really is.) It’s at this fence that Jack meets Elliot (played by Zachary Wan), who looks like he’s about 15 or 16 years old. Elliot is the only child of a Hogan Hills nurse named Gina (played by Gina Lamprell), and he seems eager to have someone to talk to when he meets Jack.

Elliot says that he knows all the ins and outs of the nursing home. The teenager also mentions that he hangs out at the nursing home a lot because his single mother is afraid to leave him at home by himself after school. Later, Jack finds out that Elliot lied to him about why Elliot spends a lot of time at the nursing home: Gina says that Elliot is the one who’s afraid to be home alone, and he asked his mother if he could hang out at the nursing home while she works.

But something that Elliot tells Jack is true: The other three members of the Chain Breakers are in the same nursing home as he is. Gee, what a coincidence. And guess who’s going to help Jack break out of this nursing home and into the nursing home where Norma is staying/being imprisoned? The reunited Chain Breakers call this mission Operation Skippy, as in, they’re going to skip right on out of this nursing home if it’s the last thing they do.

And why does Elliot know so much about the Chain Breakers? It turns out that he’s a Vietnam War history buff and he’s idolized the Chain Breakers for years. Gee, what a coincidence. And he volunteers to help them with their mission to break out of the nursing home. At first, the Chain Breakers are reluctant to let this kid tag along, but when they consider how helpful Elliot can be, they include him in their plans.

As for the other Chain Breakers: Angus “Screw Loose” Wilson (played by Jack Thompson) is in the early stages of having Alzheimer’s disease. There are several tacky jokes made about his forgetfulness and mental stability, such as his tendency to walk around naked from the waist down because he forgets to dress himself down there. Angus is the most mild-mannered one of the four Chain Breakers.

Corporal James Wendell (played by Roy Billing) is a hot-tempered, wheelchair-using rogue with a criminal record for bank robbery. Viewers first see James fighting off three male nursing attendants with a broom because he doesn’t want to take a prostate exam. James might have a gruff exterior, but he’s going through some emotional pain because his adult son Bruce (played by Shane Jacobson), whom James hasn’t seen since Bruce was a baby, refuses to communicate with him. James’ letters to Bruce are returned unopened.

Sergeant Jeremiah Caine (played by Dennis Waterman) is the smooth-talking ladies’ man of the group. Jeremiah, who’s British, was a semi-famous actor, and he’s good at conning his way out of situations. Jeremiah is having a secret fling with a married resident at the nursing home. He and his lover are almost caught while they’re having a tryst in her room, when her husband knocks on the door, but Jeremiah manages to convince her husband that he has the wrong room. (This movie has a lot of cheap jokes about old people being forgetful.)

There’s also a somewhat unnecessary character named Hank (played by Max Cullen), a Hogan Hills wacky resident in his 90s, whose only purpose in the movie is to barge in on the Chain Breakers’ secret meetings (which they have in a stock room) and make a nuisance out of himself. The predictable insulting jokes about Hank’s age and physical decline are then made at his expense. Hank responds to the insults by calling the other men “pussies,” because the “Never Too Late” filmmakers think that old people cursing in a movie is automatically supposed to be funny.

The rest of the movie is as predictable and mindless as you would expect it to be. Although the acting is passable, the dialogue in the film is not. Here’s an example of some of the vapid conversations in this useless film. Jeremiah asks Jack: “Do you have a plan?” Jack answers, “Does the Pope shit in the woods?”

And there are some hijinks involving a loaded gun that Jeremiah has smuggled into Hogan Hills; Angus’ habit of walking around naked from the waist down; and a predictable scheme to set off the fire-alarm sprinklers in order to force an evacuation. And a few of the characters have certain things revealed about themselves that aren’t too surprising.

There are several plot holes that this movie never answers. First, Jack is able to fake a stroke without medical records to back it up. These medical records would be required before he was admitted into this military veterans’ nursing home. Second, it was also unnecessary for him to fake a stroke when it’s a nursing home for able-bodied people as well as people with disabilities.

And most importantly, this nursing home isn’t a psychiatric facility where it would be reasonable to place people on lockdown. It’s not legal in Australia and most other civil societies to imprison people in a nursing home when they are of sound mind and no danger to themselves or other people. There’s some cockamamie explanation in the movie that Jack (who is of sound mind and body) and the other Hogan Hills residents signed over their rights to leave the nursing of their own free will—in other words, they agreed to be held as prisoners there—but that in and of itself is a problematic legal issue that no legitimate nursing home would be allowed to get away with for long.

Even if it were actually legal for Australian nursing homes to imprison residents, why would a former prisoner of war agree to that in the first place? It just makes Jack look incredibly dumb. And we won’t even get into the legalities of how a legitimate nursing home probably wouldn’t allow an employee’s underage child who doesn’t work there to come over and wander around wherever and whenever he wanted.

And then there’s the most logical thing that the movie completely ignores: If Jack was so desperate to see Norma, he could have just visited her. He didn’t have to go to the trouble of checking into the same nursing home where she lives and pretend to have a stroke. And after Norma was transferred to the Bay Lodge nursing facility, she was still lucid enough to have visited Jack at Hogan Hills. (It’s shown in the movie that Bay Lodge isn’t as restrictive as Hogan Hills.)

But if all this logic had been in the screenplay, there wouldn’t be a plot for this insipid movie, which doesn’t just stretch the limit of common sense. It obliterates common sense in order to make almost every character look as moronic as possible. There’s no sense of camp, irony or satire about all the silliness in this horrible film that wants to think it’s a classic comedy, just because a bunch of well-known actors (two who are past Oscar nominees) are saying the lines.

“Never Too Late” looks like a cheesy made-for-TV movie, even down to the sitcom-ish musical score. And because this movie is directed like a forgettable sitcom, the actors all look like they’re just going through the motions and not having any fun. Viewers of this dreck won’t have any fun watching it either.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Never Too Late” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 10, 2020. The movie’s VOD/digital release date is on August 14, 2020.

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