By Lynn Venhaus
The air is heavy with a sense of dread, for not only what Mother Nature has done to the land but also what man-made messes are haunting the townsfolk in fictional Kiewarra in “The Dry.”

When a childhood friend is found dead, Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) returns to his hometown for the funeral. It has been 20 years, and apparently, there is unfinished business. During their teen years, Aaron and his pal Luke were friends with a girl whose drowning death in 1991 was suspicious. His presence conjures up unpleasant memories for the flinty locals, who have their own secrets.

Aaron is still an outsider but sticks around to see if there would have been any motive for Luke and his family to be murdered. After all, in Melbourne, he is a federal police officer. This small farm town has been ravaged by a drought, and rain hasn’t fallen for 324 days, which adds to the distress.

The devastation has taken a toll on the town – and the conditions are a tinderbox waiting to happen in the dusty Australian outback. Their predicament has created a moody, unsettling atmosphere, with exceptional camera work from cinematographer Stefan Duscio, who did brilliant work in “The Invisible Man.”

The parched landscape and the isolated town are important to the story. Aaron teams up with young police sergeant Greg Raco, a fine Keir O’Donnell, whose dogged determination helps reveal clues as they figure out if the cases, 20 years apart, are connected.

The story unfolds methodically, and is based on a bestselling whodunit from Jane Harper, her debut novel in 2016. It’s a solid story, building tension as more people are put under the harsh interrogation glare.

Director Robert Connolly, who also helped write the adaptation, along with Harry Cripps, uses copious amounts of flashbacks of Aaron, Luke, Gretchen and Ellie at age 17. Samantha Strauss contributed additional writing.

The characters are well-drawn, and the supporting ensemble serve the story to create suspicion and doubt about certain townsfolk until the film’s dramatic climax. Noteworthy are John Polson as the school principal, Renee Lim as his wife Sandra, William Zappa as Ellie’s dad Mal Deacon and Rita Tapsell as the police officer’s pregnant and outspoken wife.

Eric Bana, who hasn’t been in a heroic leading man role for a while, displays the gravitas needed as a conflicted man confronting his past. As his friend, Genevieve O’Reilly gives a nuanced portrait of Gretchen, another one hiding details about their tragic losses.

The quartet portraying the four central characters as teens are key to this film working, and they excel at showing the pent-up energy of youths with hopes and dreams bigger than their environment (and those raging hormones). Joe Klocek as Aaron, Sam Corlett as Luke, Claude Scott Mitchell as Gretchen and BeBe Bettencourt as the troubled Ellie are memorable in those roles.

Bettencourt also sings a haunting version of “Under the Milky Way,” a 1988 hit for the Australian alternative rock band The Church. Her superb rendition also plays over the credits.

A score by Peter Rayburn punctuates the growing sinister tone, and is not overdone.

By the film’s conclusion, most loose ends are effectively resolved. The film’s strong sense of time and place, grounded acting, and captivating yarn make this murder mystery a cut above.

“The Dry” is an Australian film directed by Robert Connolly and adapted from Jane Harper’s 2016 debut novel. Starring Eric Bana, Genevieve O’Reilly, Keir O’Donnell and John Polson, this 2020 murder mystery is Rated R for violence and language throughout, and runtime is 1 hour, 57 minutes. It is in theaters and Video on Demand as of May 21. Lynn’s Grade: A-