Back to the Big Screen: ‘The Dry’ & ‘Cruella’

Returning to the movies after more than a year, I discovered that I missed both the art house and the megaplex.

The marquee of my neighborhood theater proclaims, “We’re very open.” Facebook  correspondents ask me if “normal” people can go to the movies. I don’t know about normal, but there was a very real audience at the two very open theaters I visited recently.

Breaking the quarantine-imposed fast was a little frightening, but it wasn’t the danger of COVID that gave me pause. Rather, it was mentally preparing for going back into the dark, after one year away from movies.

The two moviehouses I visited, 24 hours apart, did everything imaginable to keep attendees as separated as possible. At one, they sealed off many of the seats with crime-scene ribbons. At the other, they’d taped off the drinking fountain, as well as every other sink in the men’s restroom, lest there was accidental contact between two people washing their hands at the same time. (Probably overkill. Whatever pigs we are in real life, we men are quite formal in public restrooms.)

The coming attractions eased me back into the old experience. The Australian hit The Dry was preceded by the usual mild-mannered trailers one expects from Landmark Theaters: “A very French love story” blurbs the still-working A.O. Scott of the new Francois Ozon. Merci, Tony! Meanwhile, some hard-of-hearing elders sought their pre-assigned and socially-distanced seats, shouting at each other in the dimness.

But the truth is, I didn’t feel like I was very back until the splashier previews preceding Cruella, which I took in on my second cinematic sojourn.

Incidentally, Cruella was much better than it sounds, with Emma Stone reversing a venerable movie bit: “Without your glasses, you’re beautiful!” She’s even more beautiful with her specks. This expensive romp’s 101 needle-drops float you through the chiffon-like plot, as if one were riding a pink fleecy cloud of Ambien.

What shook me good was a welcome-back montage before Cruella, advertising the extravaganzas later this year: Jungle Cruise, with Duane Johnson and Emily Blunt apparently impersonating the leads of a forgotten movie called The African Queen; Daniel Craig as 007, striding forth, buttoning up his immaculately tailored suit, and Scarlet Johannson’s superagent Black Widow plummeting out of planes and tumbling around Moscow. 

I hadn’t even let myself think of how much I missed it all. Not just the “cinemaw is a universal language” style film, which, in the end, is where the real rewards are. How I’d yearned for all of that golden garbage. 

Much of Australia is monsoonal — two seasons, “the wet” and “the dry.” The tinderbox landscapes in The Dry mirror our parched California hills. It’s been one day short of a year since the last rain fell on a remote, dwindling farm town in Victoria state. But there are fresh flowers on three new graves. It’s the aftermath of a murder/suicide, seen in the beginning: first the shadows of the decorative wrought iron trim under a bungalow’s roof, then the sound of a wailing baby, and a slow tracking shot through a hallway splattered with arterial spray. 

Federal cop Aaron Falk (Eric Bana, bringing in the covert yet soulful qualities of film noir stalwart Robert Ryan) is bidden to return to Kiewarra for the funeral of a friend. The town chased him out when he was a teen. His best boyhood chum Luke (played in youth by Sam Corlett) was the culprit who seems to have killed his wife and eldest child, before blowing his head off in a dried-up lake bed. Alibis fall apart as Aaron unofficially investigates old friends and old enemies. 

He gets to know the local state patrolman Greg (Keir O’Donnell), an inexperienced younger cop dazzled by Aaron’s status as a fed. At the same time, Aaron warms up his old friendship with Gretchen (Genevieve O’Reilly), a keen single mom who may know more than she’s saying. 

What Genevieve does say has wit, with that affectionate disparagement that’s a mark of Australian vernacular. She parries Aaron’s questions over some glasses of wine — ”I thought we were just going to sit here and drink our body weight.”

It’s based on a celebrated novel by Jane Harper, who co-scripted and co-produced. The women have the best lines; Miranda Tapsell is a standout as Greg’s canny, pregnant wife, who has her suspicions about Aaron, and can’t wait to put him under a magnifying glass. Renee Lim has a quieter, sadder role as an outsider, the traumatized wife of a schoolteacher. 

The women leaven this man’s-world tableau: dying farms, raging yokels almost as bad as the ones in Wake in Fright — a.k.a. Outback (1981) — and a tough hotel bar with a noisy alcove full of “pokies,” that is video poker slot machines. The glow of bushfires light up the night sky. From her kitchen, a granny watches her glowering offspring getting out his shotgun to kill rabbits, an invasive pest Down Under. She tells Aaron “I keep asking him to shoot me, but he’s a sensitive soul, my grandson.” 

If it breaks no new ground, The Dry has a lot of ground to study. After a year’s cinema drought, the aerial shots of a car driving across the 50 shades of brown flatlands with a cloud of dust rising behind is, to use an A.O. Scott-ism, sumptuous. 

The climax is in super slow-mo, as if you wouldn’t believe it unless you saw how it happened. I saw it and still didn’t believe it. And the central mystery is tied up like a Christmas package, with the rediscovery of hidden evidence found in startlingly pristine condition. However, director Robert Connolly, of the sub-Oliver Stone drama The Bank (2001), solves that troublesome problem of matching decades old flashbacks with the present day story. He does it by returning again and again to the same place. In the old days of the 1990s, it was a welcoming swimming hole, in which four teenage friends splashed in rough horseplay. Now, with two of the group in their graves, it’s a heat-blasted dry ravine, surrounded by eucalypts dead of thirst.

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