As Australia Day looms so does another round of Australian movies. If you’re feeling patriotic you can now watch Glendyn Ivin’s Penguin Bloom, in which a disabled Naomi Watts finds new hope through a magpie. Coming soon is Stephen Johnson’s High Ground, an historical drama set in Arnhem Land, where Simon Baker treads a blood-stained tightrope on behalf of black and white relations. Last, and I suspect least, is Luke Sparke’s Occupation: Rainfall, a big budget Australian science fiction feature.
As usual, there is a certain pressure on a reviewer to “support” the local product, especially Occupation: Rainfall, which is an attempt to make an apocalyptic blockbuster set in Sydney. I was gritting my teeth in preparation for the preview when I made the fatal mistake of watching the trailer. Within three minutes I’d reached saturation point for bad dialogue; cardboard acting; melodramatic music; plastic bug-eyed aliens; sub-Star Wars rocket, ray gun and laser sabre fights; things exploding, and more things exploding.
As someone who has never enjoyed a moment of the Star Wars franchise I realised I couldn’t face the prospect of two hours of sci-fi schlock with Australian accents. So I won’t be providing an in-depth critique of a project which seems to be based on an “industry” assumption that because Hollywood has made millions from really terrible films we need to make films that are just as bad. Such are the criteria for artistic success in Scott Morrison’s Australia.
That standard seems to apply across the board because Robert Connolly’s film, The Dry, is being widely praised for clocking up $3.5 million in box office receipts during its first weekend. The message is: ‘If it makes money it must be good,’ even though one glance at a list of the highest grossing films of the past decade is enough to demolish this assumption. They’re mainly superhero flicks.
Box office revenue is an inadequate tool for assessing The Dry. Although the film owes some of its success to a lack of international competition it has a higher-than-average degree of artistic merit. I haven’t read Jane Harper’s novel upon which the film is based, but one imagines it makes full use of the drought as a metaphor for the barrenness and emptiness of an isolated country town where the inhabitants’ human sympathies have evaporated in the heat.
Throughout the movie we are never allowed to lose sight of the flat, dry landscape, the heat and the glare. It’s an Australian neo-noir conducted under a huge, sunny sky. Unlike similar films such as Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road (2013), there is no preoccupation with racial attitudes. Although one of the local wives is Asian (Renee Lim) and another is indigenous (Miranda Tapsell) we’re never quite sure if this is important to the plot or whether it’s simply a piece of inclusive casting.
The fictional hamlet of Kiewarra may be hot and parched (“like a tinderbox”), packed with combustible hatreds and tensions, but it is much less frightening than the town we meet in Wake in Fright (1971), which remains the ultimate provincial nightmare. Kiewarra, for all its remoteness, is a modern town in which gigantic machines do the wheat harvesting and CCTV helps the protagonist in his investigations.
Eric Bana gives a beautifully restrained performance as Aaron Falk, a detective in the Australian Federal Police, who is obliged to leave Melbourne and return to his home town after an alleged murder-suicide involving a school friend. It seems that his old mate, Luke, has shot his wife and kids, and then himself, perhaps in despair over the economic ruin promised by the drought.
We quickly realise matters are not so cut and dried. We also learn about the skeleton in Falk’s closet that forced him to leave Kiewarra while still a teenager, when he was accused of being involved in the death of a girl on whom he had a crush. He and Luke concocted an alibi but this did little to allay the suspicions that still linger.
Throughout the film Connolly cuts back and forth between the present and the past as Falk goes into flashback mode, thinking of the days he spent with Luke (Sam Corlett), the dead girl, Ellie (Bebe Bettencourt), and her friend, Gretchen (Claude Scott-Mitchell). As it happens, Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly) still lives in Kiewarra, and a spark of romance is rekindled.
At the insistence of Luke’s parents Falk steps into the investigation, aided by an obliging local police sergeant, Greg Raco (Keir O’Donnell). Almost immediately he runs into trouble with Ellie’s beligerent brother, Grant (Matt Nable, playing the thug again), and begins to uncover those secrets the citizens of Kiewarra have been keeping buried.
Eventually it’s all we can do to separate the red herrings from the genuine clues as Falk tries to find out the truth about the deaths of Luke’s family and Ellie. Could the two crimes be connected?
It’s the complexity of the characters that holds our attention while the story proceeds in almost laconic fashion. When the mystery is resolved everything happens in a rush, the second part of the puzzle being revealed in an end sequence that could best be described as a coda.
The paradox of a film like The Dry is that those aspects which render it uniquely Australian such as the sweeping vistas of a sun-blasted landscape, dreamy flashbacks to bushland swimming holes, and the stubborn, inarticulate nature of the Aussie working classes, are so foreign to the murder mystery genre that it lends the entire production an air of unreality. It’s a bit like Arthur Streeton painting a dead man being carried out of a mine in Fire’s On (1891). Faced with a rocky bush landscape illuminated by dazzling sunshine nobody ever notices the tiny figure on a stretcher.
Fire’s On shows how hard it is to tell a dark, tragic tale in an Australian setting – a problem echoed in The Dry. It may be that local audiences have responded positively to the film because the environment is so instantly familiar. The real test will come with overseas distribution when we learn whether viewers look upon The Dry as a new kind of murder mystery or as an old-fashioned whodunnit that has thrown off the cloak of darkness and stands wincing in the bright light of day.
Directed by Robert Connolly
Written by Robert Connolly & Harry Cripps, after a novel by Jane Harper
Starring Eric Bana, Genevieve O’Reilly, Keir O’Donnell, Matt Nable, John Poulson, Joe Klocek, BeBe Betancourt, Sam Corlett, Claude Scott-Mitchell
Australia/USA, rated MA 15+, 117 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 23 January, 2021