Review: The Dry (Moonlight Cinema)12 February 2021
On the silver screen, Jane Harper’s 2016 best-selling debut novel The Dry translates into an Aussiewood thriller with a Picnic at Hanging Rock brand of outback malaise.
Australian federal police agent Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) reluctantly returns to his hometown of Kiewarra for three funerals: that of his childhood best friend, his wife, and their son after they are found shot. Some of the locals are none too pleased to see Aaron as he haunts – and is haunted by – his old stomping grounds to clear his best friend’s name. In his first Australian feature film since Romulus, My Father (2007), Bana is the country-boy turned groomed city detective to perfection. Bared forearms flexing under his rolled button-up, Aaron is commanding while visibly discomfited, pulled out of sorts at each turn by the regimented politics of that most secretive of institutions: the small-town.
Alongside the Bana Aussiewood institution, the cast is flush with young talent. I found a familiar face in young Aaron as played by Joe Klocek. From his Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) fame as Young Monarch Soldier, you ask? No, The Dry is a must-watch for fans of the ABC3 teen drama series Nowhere Boys (2013-2018). Klocek, Claude Scott-Mitchell, Sam Corlett and Bebe Bettencourt shine in Aaron’s sun-stained teenage flashbacks. They play out in that peculiar grainy technicolour quality of adolescent memories: romanticised, with just enough undercurrents or elements omitted to make you nervous.
The Dry doesn’t short-change itself. Director Robert Connolly places it squarely in the political.
He says, “We really tried to make this kind of, we call it, ‘hyper-Australian’ cinema. A big Australian film: big landscapes, big stories, music, stars – one that brings Australian audiences to the cinema to watch.”
Job done: the film brought in almost $13 million in three weeks and injected $8 million into Victoria’s economy. In the process, it put ‘hyper-Australian’ issues on the big screen: gambling addiction, mounting debts, domestic abuse, homophobia. Of course, these problems are not unique to Australia. But we do them with a certain panache, an Australian je-ne-sais-quoi.
Edmund Burke said that any item or artwork set up to evoke ideas of pain or danger, to ‘terrorise’, in a sense, is a sublime thing. Confronted with such objects, the question arises: could I survive this? The fear of annihilation triggers feelings of self-preservation. Confronted with a sublime shot, the self-preservation instinct is tempered by its non-real cinematic context, leading to an overwhelming feeling of awe and terror. Many adjectives. The Dry is worth the watch solely for its rendering of the cinematic sublime. Scenes end with far shots, onscreen figures dwarfed by the monolithic Australian desert and its vast force, inscrutable like a god. The cinematography centres how the road to today’s climate crisis was paved by colonial mishandling of Indigenous lands. Scenes transition with aerial landscape shots: plumes of smoke billow from control fires and miniature tornadoes simmer on reaped fields. However, at times, it participates in the terra nullius mythology. A formidable pilgrimage of settlers, wringing existence from the land as blood from a stone. What happens when an unstoppable people meets an immovable environment?
At night, the Royal Botanic Gardens’ Central Lawn moonlights as a picture house. Just shy of south Yarra River, patrons of the Moonlight Cinema sprawl a regulated 1.5 meters apart. Dogs dot the deconstructed quilt of picnic blankets. I crane my neck for a better view and the couple in front moves their blanket. Someone lends me their bug spray (bring bug spray). While there’s something to be said for the bedroom streaming experience we all too intimately acquainted ourselves with over the past year, it is a welcome far cry.
Moonlight Cinema, the Royal Botanic Gardens’ outdoor picture place, shows one film a day. Perhaps the advance screening of The Dry I saw fell on Invasion Day by scheduling quirk— but I doubt it.