Small-Town Secrets Are Uncovered in Slow-Burning Aussie Thriller ‘The Dry’

The shocking and violent demise of a family brings Eric Bana back home to rural Australia in mystery thriller “The Dry.” Based on the novel of the same name by Jane Harper, the story follows Aaron Falk (Bana, Joe Klocek in flashbacks), a federal agent who returns home to the small town of Kiewarra after 20 years away to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke Hadler (Martin Dingle-Wall, Sam Corlett in flashbacks), and Luke’s wife, Karen (Rosanna Lockhart) and young son, Billy (Jarvis Mitchell). While most everyone accepts that Luke gunned down his wife and son before killing himself (sparing his baby daughter), Luke’s parents (Bruce Spence, Julia Blake), believe otherwise. Aaron agrees to stick around and look over the evidence, although being back opens up some old wounds regarding the mysterious death of his high school girlfriend, a crime that could possibly be connected to this latest tragedy.

The story unravels slowly, and on the day of Aaron’s return, it has been 324 days since the last rainfall. He ends up working alongside Greg Raco (Keir O’Donnell), the local police sergeant who discovered the crime scene and has little experience investigating a crime of this magnitude. Aaron is haunted by memories of the drowning death of Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt), a young woman from a troubled home whom he was involved with around the time she died when they were both 17. They spent a lot of time hanging out as a foursome with Luke and his then-girlfriend, Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly, Claude Scott-Mitchell in flashbacks). 

In present day, Gretchen is a source of support for Aaron, and she is one of a handful of people who gives him insight into who Karen was, as he never met her. Gretchen worked with Karen at the local school, where the dead women did bookkeeping, and the principal, Scott Whitlam (John Polson), is also welcoming to Aaron and cooperative in the investigation, as is his wife, Sandra (Renee Lim), a mom with whom Karen was friends. Scott and Sandra left their previous life in Melbourne after a scary robbery, and Sandra expected Kiewarra to be safer, but director Robert Connolly, who also co-wrote the adapted screenplay, makes it clear that demons can follow people anywhere. In addition to his inner demons, Aaron has to deal with open hostility from Ellie’s dementia-ridden father, Mal (William Zappa), and her cousin, Grant (Matt Nable). Aaron finds the latter’s name written on some papers left behind by Karen, and she also kept a newspaper clipping about Aaron, a man she never met, both a few of the ominous clues he uncovers.

“The Dry” exposes the reality of life in a small town, outwardly safe places where everyone knows each other. However, places like this are also breeding grounds for secrets, such as affairs, child abuse, and various addictions. A key character lies to Aaron about his whereabouts on the day of the murder, only to be revealed to have been engaged in gay sex during that timeframe –– He would rather be a murder suspect than outed. The river in which Ellie drowned seems to serve as a metaphor for covering things up. Now that the drought has dried it up, it’s easier to bring certain things to the surface.

Bana and his co-stars mostly impress with their understated performances. All of the tension leads to two separate climaxes, one pretty explosive. However, just like in real life, nothing ties up neatly, and even when the characters find the answers they’re looking for, there’s no escaping pain from wounds both emotional and physical. The viewer cannot help but leave only half-satisfied. 

The Dry” releases May 21 on VOD and in select theaters.