Mysteries old and new in an Outback torrid zone

Eric Bana plays an Australian federal police officer investigating an apparent murder-suicide and confronting his own demons in “The Dry.”

“The Dry” is a small movie that isn’t wrapped in hype or star power, but one with large, disturbingly up-to-the-minute themes: the dominance of the past over the present and the suggestion that climate change may affect the mind and the soul.

The film’s title refers to a meteorological phenomenon of prolonged drought peculiar to Australia. Before the main action begins, we are told this is the parched Kiewarra Province, where there has been no rainfall for 324 days.

Into this torrid zone enters the nonchalantly intense Aaron Falk (Eric Bana in top form), an Australian federal police investigator called back to Kiewarra, where he grew up, for the funeral of adolescent friend Luke Hadler (Martin Dingle Wall) who apparently murdered his wife and son before turning the shotgun on himself. Falk renews acquaintances with another high school friend, Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly), school principal Scott Whitlam (John Polson) and town doctor Grant Dow (Matt Nable).

While Falk is in Kiewarra, Luke’s parents Gerry and Karen Hadler (Bruce Spence, terrific as always, and Rosanna Lockhart) plead with him to stay. They don’t believe Luke could have killed his family and taken his own life, and they ask Falk to investigate and find the real killer.

As Falk digs deeper into the case, however, he is plagued by memories of another mysterious death in Kiewarra 20 years ago, one which might have been a murder and one in which he may have been involved.

In flashbacks, we see the young Aaron Falk (Joe Klocek), a quiet, cautious teenager horsing around in a nearby river (when water was abundant) with his friends Ellie Deacon (BeBe Bettencourt), a pretty, free-spirited blonde, the young Gretchen (Claude Scott-Mitchell) and the young Luke (Sam Corlett), the unquestioned leader of the group who has no compassion for Aaron’s weaknesses. Aaron has a serious crush on Ellie and it is Ellie who drowns in the river under puzzling circumstances. Was it accidental? Suicide? Or a homicide? Many in Kiewarra despise Aaron to this day believing he knows more about Ellie’s death than he admitted.

Director Robert Connolly, in an impressive fifth feature (he cowrote the script with Harry Cripps based on a novel by Jane Harper), unspools a lot of story threads that he can’t always weave together. And his roots in Australian television series result in too overdeliberate a pace for this kind of thriller and an anticlimax that ties all the loose ends too neatly.

But Connolly is a wonder with actors — Bana and Bettencourt earn top honors — and a filmmaker with an instinct for emotions that bleed through the plot mechanics. “The Dry” is a haunting movie that hits you hard.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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