“You were always quiet,” the old flame says of the big city cop who’s come home for a funeral.” “You always saw everything.”
That’s Eric Bana’s character in “The Dry,” a solid and engrossing police procedural from Down Under. He plays Aaron Falk, a detective who grew up in remote, drought-stricken Kiewarra, but left long ago, and under a cloud.
Now he’s been summoned home for the funeral of a former friend, a guy who killed his family in a murder-suicide. And that has the entire town furious. Aaron knew Luke. And Aaron and Luke lied about another death twenty years before. Now Luke’s gone and killed his wife and son and then himself. If only Aaron had told the truth back then, they think.
But Luke’s family (Julia Blake, Bruce Spence) want Aaron to clear his name, once again.
“Obviously, Luke didn’t do it,” his mother declares. Nobody else in town buys that. They’re pretty damned sure Luke, or Aaron or both of them had something to do with a girl’s drowning when they were teens. The harassment, led by the girl’s hard-drinking redneck brother (Matt Nable) turns from testy to ugly in a flash.
In scenes set in the present day, Aaron watches and listens. Unarmed, supposedly off-the-clock as a Federal police detective who just broke a big finance scandal case, Aaron avoids confrontations. He takes care to include the out-of-his-depth local police sergeant (Keir O’Donnell) as he follows leads and patiently asks questions.
There are no obvious answers, but suspects start to pop up and the town’s secrets start to emerge, one clue at a time.
Aaron meets up with former classmate, now a single-mom Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly) and there are sparks, even if he’s asking everyone questions, including her.
“Can’t we just sit and drink our body weight?”
In scenes set in the past, the teen Aaron (Joe Klocek) is just as subdued, the quiet partner to brash, abrasive and charismatic pal Luke (Sam Corlett), the handsome one that turned all the girls’ heads. And he’s just as observant, scenes the adult Aaron replays in his mind as he rethinks that “mystery” from long ago.
Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt), a haunted beauty who guards her secrets even if her unhappiness shows, had both boys’ attention.
What happened back then, and is it “connected,” somehow, to what’s happening now?
Aussie director Robert Connolly (“The Bank”) takes his time with this material, slowly building up characters, layer by layer. The stresses of the drought are stated overtly at first, and slip into the background. A visit to “the ol’swimmin’ hole” shows it to be dry, as is everybody’s favorite fishing lake.
“Shooting rabbits,” the European imports that overran Australia in the 19th century whose presence is even less welcome in times of drought, has become a local routine. “Can’t have’em on my property.”
Aaron doesn’t have the stomach for that. But we have to wonder how much abuse Aaron will take from a very hostile town where he’s no longer welcome. And while clues start to pop up, which he and we notice at the same time, the false leads outnumber the real ones for much of the picture.
The film’s downbeat tone suits its sedate pace. There’s room for characters to breathe and develop, and O’Reilly, Nable, Bettencourt and others play people with flaws and quirks and secrets insofar as anyone can have such things in a town this size.
Bana makes Aaron the most intriguing and “real” feeling character of all — troubled by guilt and questions he may not want the answer to, stumbling in the wrong direction, here and there, but never breaking stride, never panicking, never blowing up or melting down in that way “Hollywood” cops so often do.
The film’s resolution leaves something to be desired, but Bana pulls us in even and gets us past even the moments when “The Dry” threatens to leave us high and dry.
MPA Rating: R for violence, and language throughout
Cast: Eric Bana, Genevieve O’Reilly, Keir O’Donnell, BeBe Bettencourt, Matt Nable, Miranda Tapsell, Julia Blake and Bruce Spence.
Credits: Directed by Robert Connolly, script by Harry Cripps, Robert Connolly and Samantha Strauss, based on a novel by Jane Harper. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:57