After the terrible devastation caused by last year’s bushfires, which prompted hundreds of Australians to shelter in the ocean to escape incineration and destroyed uncountable amounts of wildlife, The Dry has been released during a totally different kind of dry spell. The pandemic has provided an instructive sense of scale, of how much we are going to have to change patterns of consumption in order to overcome the climate crisis. We stopped flying, gave up commuting, and closed down many factories, all of which ended business as usual pretty much across the entire planet, far more than we ever imagined would be possible. But the bottom line is that, while carbon emissions declined, it was entirely insufficient (by many calculations little more than fifteen percent). What that seems to indicate is that most of the momentum destroying our our Earth is already hardwired into the systems that run it. Only by vigorously attacking those systems, ripping out their fossil-fueled guts, replacing them with renewable energy, and making them far more efficient, can we hope to reduce emissions to the point where we stand a chance. Not a chance to stop global warming - which is now inevitable - but a chance of surviving.
Director Robert Connolly’s adaptation of Jane Harper’s best-selling 2016 novel is a gripping, highly polished film, commandingly acted and directed, with a tonal cohesiveness derived from a plethora of long-shots that delineate the desiccated beauty of the Australian outback with stark aridity. Harper's novel had barely hit shelves when producer Bruna Papandrea and Connolly optioned the film rights. Papandrea is best known for adapting Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies for HBO, which swapped Sydney's northern beaches for Big Sur, but there is no separating The Dry from its thirsty western Victoria locations. For Harper, that humanity was grounded in her thirteen years as a journalist (“It gave me a really good ability to listen to people’s stories and try to find a human element behind the headlines”) and her entire oeuvre is riddled with corporate crime, revenge porn, gambling and alcohol addiction, crippling debt, preyed-upon backpackers, and toxic masculinity that sweats through hi-vis and private school uniforms alike. Conolly's movie lies squarely in the tradition of earlier Australian films such as the silent The Breaking of the Drought (1920), John Heyer’s influential documentary The Back of Beyond (1954), the Disney-like family flick Bushfire Moon, and the more recent A Sunburnt Christmas.
Like Alice Bishop's A Constant Hum and Jennifer Mills' Dyschronia, The Dry investigates the impact of ecological disaster on small agricultural communities. In a recent Guardian interview, Harper observed, “When I moved back to Australia in 2008, I got sent on a fire safety course as a reporter, so I could be safe in the event that I would have to go out and cover a bushfire. I was stunned by what I saw and learned. I’d never seen that portrayal of fire, how quickly it goes from OK to deadly in the space of minutes. That’s always stayed with me.” Connolly added, “The big image of the film is Aaron standing in a river that’s now completely dry and remembering himself twenty-five years ago, swimming with his friends. It’s kind of devastating imagery. Climate change and its impact on the land were present with us all the time,” he adds. “We were filming out in a part of Australia that is doing it really tough. Beulah, the town [on the poster], has drinking water issues. It’s ever present. Farmers are growing different grains than they used to because there’s not enough water.”
Harper's previous four novels explore the competing sensibilities of romanticism and dread that have recurred in 'Straya writing since colonisation - “It’s quite easy for things to go wrong quite quickly, which is a real gift for a writer. It just lends itself to mystery and suspense so well because you do have that undercurrent of danger in a lot of locations.” Before shooting began, Connolly hit the road with Bana and the pair immersed themselves in the local atmosphere - “You drive one, two, three hours out of Melbourne,” he said “and by the time you cross four you’re into the Mallee region and the landscape changes immensely. I fell in love with it. It’s the most beautiful, extraordinary place. But it’s tough … you feel this muscular, tough lifestyle of the landscape set against its beauty.” Connolly depicts Harper's lost and alienated characters like ants trying to establish colonies, but ultimately lost in the sheer scale of the landscape and the inbred depths of their personal and social problems.
Written by Connolly and Harry Cripps, the script hinges on a pair of unsolved mysteries, one recent, the other decades old, both involving violent deaths that were potentially, but not necessarily murders. Binding these threads together is protagonist Aaron Falk (Eric Bana), a federal police agent who returns to his fictional hometown of Kiewarra following the apparent murder-suicide of his old schoolmate Luke, who seems to have shot his wife and child before killing himself. Clipped introductory images show the aftermath of the incident, leading into location-establishing shots of the town presented in dusty yellowish tones that define the film’s aesthetic. In contrast, brief opening shots of Melbourne are rendered in steely blue, with Falk staring through the glass at the concrete jungle surrounding him with a blank look on his face that screams “I’m in deep thought”. He soon arrives at Kiewarra for his friend’s funeral, where the priest's eulogy refers to a “devastating drought.” The dead man’s parents are convinced he is innocent and plead with Falk to investigate. Accusations are thrown back at him relating to the unsolved death many years ago of his teenage friend Ellie in which he was implicated, with a general consensus among townsfolk that he lied about his whereabouts on the day of her death. This scepticism is voiced throughout the film, shading the protagonist and making him a morally murky figure, and maybe even a legitimate suspect himself.
The tinder is clearly primed to incinerate at any moment, not only literally, given the constant danger of bushfires, but also figuratively - the mental temperature of the locals, some of whom react with undisguised hostility to the presence of “the filth.” The arid setting may be 'dryzabone,' but the real heat comes from the racist, resentful, and alcoholic locals who are prone to violence at the the drop of an Akubra. Its publicity tagline - “a desperate act in a small town with secrets” - could equally be applied to such precursors Twin Peaks, Broadchurch, and Top of the Lake. In this tension, Harper’s characters inherit a settler narrative of pioneers carving hard-scrabble homes and livelihoods from an inhospitable environment. It constitutes part of a nation-building mythology that helped launder the realities of dispossession and ecological degradation of legally “unowned” land stolen from its indigenous population.
Falk's presence brings out the disparate stories and attitudes of the local police sergeant, Ellie’s belligerent father and cousin, an uncooperative farmer, the school principal, and one of Falk’s adolescent romantic interests. Bana’s performance is a morosely convincing take on the “slow cop” trope, his character fleshed out through visions of a younger version of himself in the flashbacks that regularly punctuate the movie's main narrative arc. Connolly (whose previous work includes Balibo, Paper Planes, and the TV miniseries Barracuda) understands how heavily the novel relies on these flashbacks and calibrates his movie accordingly. While flashbacks have plenty of literary and theatrical precedents, the term emerged only after the advent of cinema, which provided fresh and visceral ways to “return to a narrative past inserted in a narrative present,” as Maureen Turim explained in her book Flashbacks in Film.
In this narrative past, Belle is a beautiful and mysterious teenager with vaguely psychic qualities who infuses past events with a distinctly Picnic at Hanging Rock hue. The supporting performances are similarly convincing, adding a psychological intensity implied but not dictated by Stefan Duscio’s impressive cinematography. Harper’s novel was skillfully constructed, with the inevitable red herrings and reveals, and the film is equally terse and tense, neatly balancing the expansive vistas with uncomfortably up-close and personal drama. Not only is the environment threatening and hostile, but also the people who inhabit and traverse it, with their hidden agendas, clashing motives, and obscured pasts.
“Something Eric and I talked a lot about early on was not judging the characters that live in that world,” said Connolly, who also drew inspiration from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, a similarly hydrophobic classic about the founding of Los Angeles. “There’s a version of these stories that’s like Deliverance - ‘urban character gets stuck in dark, horrific regional place’ - and that wasn’t our intention. We had to look deep into the heart of these damaged characters and the tough luck they’ve had, and find the humanity … We really tried to make ... ‘hyper-Australian’ cinema. A big Australian film: big landscapes, big stories, music, stars - one that brings Australian audiences to the cinema to watch.”
Hopefully, they will start paying closer attention to the devastation being wreaked by fossil-fuels and plastic pollution during the Anthropocene Age on our previously blue oceans and green planet before we reach the final tipping point in ten years time, after which it will be a tragic case of much too little, much too late.