The Dry Land

The Dry Land


Reviewed by: James Benefield

In The Dry Land, a man comes home from fighting in Iraq to work at a slaughter house. However, this grimly apt locale is the least of his problems.

People all over his small town in Texas, are asking James (Ryan O'Nan) if he's killed a man. He doesn't answer them, and it soon becomes clear why. He can't remember. He takes much of his frustration out on his wife, Sarah (Ugly Betty's America Ferrera). One night after he comes home drunk, he becomes violent towards her. It's the final straw and she decides to move to her mother's until he starts to get a grip on his issues. However, it's not so simple for someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

To help himself out, James goes on a road trip to revisit some of his old army buddies. It's a trip which sees some disturbing revelations about what he did in the field of combat. It culminates in a visit to Henry, a man stuck in the hospital. Henry can no longer live without the help of a team of carers. Henry also knows what happened to the battalion on one particularly fateful night.

It's problematic subject matter which needs a steady hand and thoughtful treatment. This is particularly the case with a film which relies on the unsaid and unremembered. The driving force of the narrative is James's attempt to find out about what happened to him one night. You'd think we'd receive a series of partial flashbacks, increasing in length and detail as the film approaches its climax.

But there are no flashbacks whatsoever; the past is created by words and actors' expressions. It's a brave move, and a writer's minefield. A good movie shows, rather than tells, after all. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work here. The verbal constipation of the lead character never quite lets up. We're meant to see this as a symbol of PTSD, and of a man suppressing feelings of humiliation and shame. Boys don't cry, after all. But the film doesn't feel in any gaps. Instead, it's frustrating, and simply underdeveloped.

It's a shame because Ryan O'Nan is good value. He is ably supported by Ferrera, as the long-suffering spouse. They're stuck with a script that can't quite find the right voice for its concerns. Its jump, half way through, to a road movie is uncomfortable and distracting.

Where the movie succeeds is in its uncomfortable observations about returning home, and the consequences this has on family, friends and the one returning. Here, Ryan O'Nan shines. However, it never knows how to follow this up and thus becomes mired in a genre which is ultimately unsuitable for the material. The road movie conventions force the film to take a certain climax and ending, which don't quite work.

Reviewed on: 18 Jun 2010
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A US soldier returning home from war struggles to reconcile his experiences abroad with the life and family he left in Texas.
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