The low-key, rural Australian murder mystery “The Dry” is notable for its setting and performances. But it moves too slowly, doesn’t plant enough tension and resolves too suddenly to germinate. Where some emotional power would serve, it’s too … dry.
Eric Bana plays Aaron Falk, a federal agent returning to his tiny, drought-stricken hometown after a 20-year absence. He’s back for the funeral of Luke, a childhood friend accused of murdering his own family before killing himself. Though some regard Aaron as a hero for his accomplishments in the big city, others say he might have been involved in the long-ago death of Ellie, one of Luke and Aaron’s friends. Pressed by Luke’s parents to investigate Luke’s alleged murders, Aaron must also confront the truth of Ellie’s death.
The two sets of actors playing the friends as kids and the survivors as adults acquit themselves well. Newcomer BeBe Bettencourt is a convincing troubled teen as Ellie (and has a lovely singing voice) and Joe Klocek is soulful and off-balance as young Aaron. The always-welcome Bana is perhaps too restrained as grown-up nice guy Aaron who might be constrained by guilt (viewers will have to see), but we believe him as an effective investigator. Keir O’Donnell (“Wedding Crashers”) makes you root for him as the local cop finding his way, John Polson is memorable as the boss of Luke’s murdered wife and Genevieve O’Reilly feels familiar and real as Gretchen, the other survivor from Aaron’s group of friends.
But while some atmosphere is built-in due to the remote, arid location and confining small-town blues, there’s a lived-in-ness that’s lacking. Considering the film’s leisurely pace, one might expect more local presence and more of an experiential feeling than we get. For instance, the filmmakers don’t do much to distinguish the two timelines, despite one being pre-drought. The story (based on Jane Harper’s novel) plays like a chamber mystery; you assume each person you meet is a suspect and you try to work it out along with the sleuths.
Unfortunately, there are few surprises, and none that shock. There’s no stress on the viewer. One doesn’t exactly fear for characters’ lives or doubt that both cases will be solved. For example, the denouement, while presenting a horrific situation, doesn’t fill the viewer with dread. It also doesn’t delve deeply enough into the people to hook as a character study.
Bana is, as always, a very watchable screen presence; the film is not bad. But there’s a spark missing that could make the story burn, and the film’s abrupt ending will leave viewers high and “Dry.”