It’s summer time in Australia and cinemas remain open after periods of extended shutdown due to Covid-19 (at least for the time being). The January-February season is usually populated with Oscar contenders vying for mind-share, but this year has started a little differently. The almost complete collapse of the international release schedule has allowed for an unusual spotlight for Australian films to take the centre stage. In a normal year, local films are often relegated to fewer showings on the smaller screens, if at all, so it is uncommon to see such a wide release for Robert Connolly’s The Dry (2020) at both the multiplexes and independent cinemas. Admittedly, part of the reason for the reduced showings of Australian films is due to a lack of local engagement. This can be partly attributed to the fact that the majority of the contemporary output is, well, bad. Perhaps a silver lining in the tumultuous wake of Covid-19 could be a greater attention paid to our local art and filmmakers, an opportunity to develop a greater enthusiasm for our own output. Unfortunately, The Dry is not the film to light that spark. Rather than an underrated gem, the film is a typical example of the bland filmmaking that characterises modern Australian cinema: an adherence to convention, a lack of style or interest in form, and a sense of genericness that permeates all aspects.
The Dry is a crime drama that begins with drought-stricken images of rural Victoria that slowly fade into an ominous scene. The front door to a country house has been left open and we hear a baby manically crying from within. As the camera slowly tracks into the house, we see blood spatter, the body of a woman, the body of a child, and finally, the baby left alone in its cot. Apparently, a murder-suicide has taken place. Aaron Falk (Eric Bana), an Australian Federal Police officer living in Melbourne, is called to attend the funeral of the murdered family due to the deceased suspect being a childhood friend. While his visit to his hometown is initially personal, he soon becomes involved in the investigation into whether another culprit was responsible. Parallel to this are scenes of flashbacks involving the protagonist who has his own troubled past with the town. When he was a teenager, a friend of his died under mysterious circumstances. Could the two events be linked?
The premise of The Dry is stock and archetypal but plenty of great works have been made using this narrative cliché. The main problem of the film is that it brings nothing new to the table. There is simply no allure or intrigue to the mystery, no sense of suspense or danger, and worst of all, there is simply no perspective on the material at hand. Compare the amount of mileage Lynch is able to wrench out of the question “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, or compare how Campion used a similar premise in Top of the Lake to explore the experience of misogyny from a woman’s point of view. Here, there is only the emulation of a “serious” tone to indicate that this story is “mature” but when you attempt to comprehend the thematic point the film is trying to make, you only end up grasping at air. This is a film that operates on crime genre cliches while providing none of the visceral thrills and elucidating nothing in its subject matter.
Formally and aesthetically, the film doesn’t fare much better. The cinematography is passable, decent during daytime scenes but noticeably underlit and uninspired during night time and low light conditions. The style is stock-serious-Australian-drama: handheld mid-shots and close-ups, auburn colour-grading and minimal shot variety throughout. By the time the story finishes, you’d be hard pressed to find if you can remember a particular shot from the film. The music is overbearing and a misuse of music cues prevents scenes from having a natural impact: the introduction would actually be ominous and effective if it was literally just the sound of the baby crying and the scene of violence. Instead, it’s accompanied by basic ambient music cues that sound ripped straight out of a daytime television movie.
Which perhaps might be the defining characteristic of this film, it is very reminiscent of the innumerable local dramas you already see playing on the ABC (not to be confused with the American channel of the same name). There has been little attempt, whether narratively or visually, to justify this story as a cinematic work. Well-trodden genre cliches are fine to play with if the filmmakers are adept at the language of cinema or have an idiosyncratic point of view to convey. Sadly, these two qualities are lacking in this production.
Overall, the main cinematic sin the film commits for the majority of its runtime is that it’s just plain boring. The investigative procedural elements are barely there, or at least Eric Bana as a police officer likes to take his sweet time trying to figure out this very basic mystery. The constant intrusion of flashback scenes don’t help, their inclusion within the dramatic beats of the narrative feel arbitrary and contrived. After puttering along with not much development, the film seems to panic in its last act when it remembers it actually has to have a conclusion to its story. Unluckily for the audience, the film descends into its worst moments during this ending.
After failing to setup an intriguing mystery, the narrative goes out of its way to explain everything – and I mean everything, to the audience. We are privy to a series of histrionic flashback sequences that are intended as the dramatic crescendo, a grand revelation that reveals all. Instead, it just comes across as cheap melodrama, a cloying act on behalf of the director that conveniently resolves all ambiguity and uncertainty in service of 100% closure. This would be bad enough as it is, but before the film ends, it absurdly begins another flashback sequence where the protagonist also resolves the mystery of the dead girl from his teenage years. While I wouldn’t say the ambiguity of whether the protagonist himself was implicated in the events was ever interesting, this ending plot point just conveniently demarcates the “good people” from the “bad people”. It invalidates the troubled history of the protagonist it was trying to establish in the first place and treats the “truth” as something that can be obtained in full clarity with just a bit of gumption. Such narrative devices demonstrate a cowardice: the filmmakers can’t even leave a little sense of uncertainty for the audience, which seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding of what attracts us to mysteries in the first place.
As I attended the screening of The Dry at my local independent cinema, it was kind of nice to see a mostly packed (and socially distanced, mind you) audience come to see a piece of homegrown filmmaking. It can be nice to see stories that take place where you live, to see something you might relate to, or perhaps, experience something that might reflect upon an aspect of our lives. It’s just too bad The Dry was not worth the watch.