Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The Dry (2020)

It’s finally happened: Climate change has a film role. The Dry doesn’t use climate change to hit viewers over the head with a message about the environment. It is already a fact of life, and it affects the lives of everyone in the film. Dust, heat, and parched landscapes—all are important in The Dry. The film is set in the state of Victoria in Australia, including the Wimmera Mallee region, where drought has forced farmers to the brink of bankruptcy. Dust covers most of the land, and everyone is facing desperation. The human characters are bathed in sweat from the heat and dirty from the dust and lack of water. It’s all believable because the story was filmed on location, and the landscape is a prominent feature.

The heat, the parched landscape, the dry—these are some of the reasons that I call this film a film brûlant, or “burning film.” It’s not a term that anyone else uses as far as I know. But I coined it because it is true to the roots of the term film noir. Film noir is the name that the French bestowed on the particularly American film genre after World War II, when films were given international distribution once the war was over. Film brûlant describes The Dry perfectly, with its heat and dust and lack of water.

(This article about The Dry contains all the spoilers.)

The film’s opening sequence intercuts various threads of the plot behind the opening credits, and the shots are stark and unflinching. Viewers see the dry setting; the introduction of Aaron Falk, the main character played by Eric Bana; and the aftermath of a triple murder. Luke Hadler, his wife Karen, and their son Billie have been shot to death. The only surviving member of the family is a newborn named Charlotte, and her wailing provides part of the soundtrack that opens the film. The funeral for the rest of Charlotte’s family is the reason that Aaron Falk returns to his hometown after almost twenty years. He and Luke Hadler were childhood friends.

This intercutting, usually of the past and the present, is a central technique used in the narrative. It is very effective in revealing details as characters discover them. The pace of the narrative is also very effective. Sometimes it is quick and dizzying. Viewers have to pay attention because The Dry is a film with lots of details, and all are important. Sometimes it does slow down, especially for allowing relationships between characters to develop or to rebuild. The pacing is one of the strengths of the film. It doesn’t intrude on the enjoyment of the story, and I really only noticed it when I saw the film a second time.

Aaron Falk is an Australian federal police officer living in Melbourne who comes home to Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke. Luke Hadler, Gretchen, Aaron, and Ellie Deacon were close friends in school. Now, with Luke dead, only Aaron and Gretchen are still alive.

Even after his death, Luke is accused of shooting his wife and son and then going to a now-dry lake, where he and Aaron used to fish as teenagers, to shoot and kill himself. But the facts don’t quite add up. Many in the town believe Luke is guilty of murder-suicide because everyone in town believes he and Aaron Falk lied about the death of one of their friends, Ellie Deacon, twenty years or so earlier, thus casting suspicion on both of them. But Luke’s parents, Gerry and Barb Hadler, want to know more. They implore Aaron to stay and do some investigating of his own, even though he is understandably uncomfortable about returning home and then staying for any extended period.

Aaron Falk is not in Kiewarra in an official capacity. He doesn’t want to intrude on someone else’s case or override their authority. The story uses his situation to put him in the position of detective, but he is clearly no amateur. Some in town, including the Hadlers, are well aware of his professional success in Melbourne. They know he is well qualified to investigate crimes. Aaron Falk takes on the role of private investigator, a role for a character that is a hallmark of many noirs, new and old, but he is not a member of the official police investigation. The fact that he shares history with many town residents makes his position a bit unique—and very interesting for the narrative. The fact that so many regard him with suspicion increases the tension and unease that is already underscored by the dry heat, the soundtrack, and the recent violence.

Luke’s parents ask Aaron to begin with Luke’s and his wife’s finances. They are convinced that the failure of the wheat crop put Luke and Karen in debt and that something related to money is the cause of the tragedy. Aaron agrees to look into the books for the Hadlers’ farm, but he vows to leave after that. He has little interest in staying in town. Many of the residents don’t want him in town, and some are willing to resort to violence to make their opinions crystal clear.

Aaron can find nothing unusual in the Hadlers’ finances, but he isn’t as quick to leave as he originally planned. He decides to keep investigating and allies himself with the local police sergeant, Greg Raco, who didn’t grow up in Kiewarra and doesn’t know much about Aaron’s past, at least, not yet. He agrees with Aaron that some of the facts of the Hadlers’ case don’t make sense.

It isn’t long before Aaron realizes that there is another reason why so many Kiewarra residents are reticent about talking and would rather Aaron return to Melbourne immediately. Many of the residents are harboring secrets, and many besides Aaron Falk and Luke Hadler may be hiding information from the past. Not all the information is relevant to Ellie’s death or the murders of the Hadler family, but the general unwillingness to talk makes everyone, perhaps even a potential murder suspect, seem suspicious. Some of the secrets that Aaron uncovers include the following:

Lachie, the son of Aaron’s high school friend Gretchen, might be Luke Hadler’s. She denies it vehemently when Aaron asks her about it, but he remains suspicious.

Jamie Sullivan, one of the local firefighters and someone with a motive for killing Luke Hadler, is in a gay romantic relationship with the town doctor, Dr. Leigh.

Scott Whitlam, the school principal, has a serious gambling addiction.

Gretchen admits to Aaron where she and Luke were on the day Ellie Deacon drowned, even though no one had the slightest suspicion she was keeping this a secret all these years.

Once the murders of the three Hadler family members are solved, Aaron feels ready to go home to Melbourne. He returns to Ellie Deacon’s favorite spot in the woods, to a tree growing very close to a large split rock. He leaves an offering in the split in the rock to say goodbye to her, but he spies something under the leaves that have collected there over the years. It’s Ellie’s backpack, and in the backpack, Aaron finds Ellie’s diary, in which she details some of her father’s abuse and her decision to leave town.

This scene is also intercut with scenes from Ellie’s last day: The day that her father, Mal Deacon, killed her in the river because he realized that she was planning to run away. In this same sequence is also a rather long shot of her father in the present, with the camera moving closer and closer to his face over several seconds. The implication for me is that Aaron Falk took the information that he now knows and confronts Mal Deacon. He has evidence, at the very least, that Mal Deacon is a sex offender.

The soundtrack underscores the tension and longing in the narrative. The music is very powerful, and so is the use of baby Charlotte’s crying and the sound of rushing wind. The wind helps to remind viewers that the weather of the region is a constant and powerful factor in the residents’ lives. The way the story is told, it would have been odd for the characters not to notice how climate change has affected their lives and taken its toll. The setting is integral to the story and to all the characters, no one more so, perhaps, than Aaron Falk.

The Dry is a film well worth seeing more than once. The intertwining stories of the present murder-suicide case and the drowning of a childhood friend, Ellie Deacon, and the intertwining of the present with Aaron Falk’s memories make the film a bit difficult to follow at times. Not because it’s hard to distinguish the past from the present. All that is made very clear because the past is presented most of the time as Aaron’s memories, and the past is never interjected at random. What might be confusing is tracking all the details. The story is a complicated one, but it is told as simply as possible. The editing forces viewers to pay attention if they really want to understand. In a way, it forces viewers to participate, a bit like the past and collective guilt finally force the town’s inhabitants to face what has happened.

I would like to see the film again now that I have read the novel on which it is based: The Dry, by Jane Harper. I enjoyed the film so much, and I enjoyed the novel just as much, which doesn’t happen all that often. I find that it happens most often with films noir. Harper has already written two novels about Aaron Falk, with a third expected to be published in the United States in 2023. I would like to believe Aaron Falk is a character who will return to the screen in the near future. And I just found out that filming for Harper’s second novel featuring Aaron Falk, Force of Nature, is underway in Victoria.

I can’t wait.

December 11, 2020 (Melbourne), January 1, 2021 (Australia) release dates    Directed by Robert Connolly    Screenplay by Robert Connolly, Harry Cripps    Based on the novel The Dry by Jane Harper    Music by Peter Raeburn    Edited by Nick Meyers, Alexandre de Franceschi    Cinematography by Stefan Duscio

Eric Bana as Aaron Falk    Joe Klocek as young Aaron Falk    Genevieve O’Reilly as Gretchen    Claude Scott-Mitchell as young Gretchen    Keir O’Donnell as Greg Raco, local police sergeant    John Polson as Scott Whitlam, the school principal    Bebe Bettencourt as Eleanor (“Ellie”) Deacon    Martin Dingle-Wall as Luke Hadler    Sam Corlett as young Luke Hadler    Bruce Spence as Gerry Hadler, Luke’s father    Julia Blake as Barb Hadler, Luke’s mother    Matt Nable as Grant Dow, Ellie’s cousin    William Zappa as Mal Deacon    James Frecheville as Jamie Sullivan    Miranda Tapsell as Rita Raco    Renee Lim as Sandra Whitlam    Jeremy Lindsay Taylor as Erik Falk, Aaron’s father    Daniel Frederiksen as Dr. Leigh

Distributed by Roadshow Films    Produced by Screen Australia, Film Victoria, Made Up Stories, Arenamedia, Pick Up Truck Pictures


  1. Wow, I've never heard of this films, and it certainly sounds interesting! I will definitely have to look for it.

    1. I hope you enjoy it, Karen. I wish I could remember how I found it, probably through a preview on a DVD. I've been watching a lot of films on DVD since the pandemic began.