The Dry Land

About 15 minutes into The Dry Land, a redneck is trying to get a rise out of a veteran who just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, and between spits of tobacco juice he asks, “So, did the war fuck you up or what?” The old Hollywood cliche of the noble warrior returning from battle with little more than a scratch has in recent years been supplanted...read more

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Reviewed by Mark Deming
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About 15 minutes into The Dry Land, a redneck is trying to get a rise out of a veteran who just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, and between spits of tobacco juice he asks, “So, did the war fuck you up or what?” The old Hollywood cliche of the noble warrior returning from battle with little more than a scratch has in recent years been supplanted by a more realistic picture of soldiers dealing with both physical and emotional scars, and that’s certainly apt as America remains mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where men and women are serving long, harrowing assignments only to be sent back again months later. The Dry Land is a thoughtful attempt to tell the story of one returning soldier struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder as he tries to readjust to a “normal” life; it’s crafted with enough compassion and good intentions that it’s all but impossible not to wish that the film was better.

The Dry Land opens as James (Ryan O’Nan) arrives in his hometown of El Paso, TX, after serving in Iraq. James is greeted by a small welcoming party, his wife, Sarah (America Ferrera), and his best friend, Michael (Jason Ritter), and the next day his family throws a homecoming celebration for him. Everyone is happy to see James safe and sound, and his father-in-law says he can have a job in his meat-processing plant. But James is wary about questions regarding his experiences in battle, and when his young nephew asks him if he killed anyone in Iraq, James replies that he doesn’t know. James isn’t bluffing -- he lost several friends when an explosive device hit their vehicle while returning to base, and now James cannot recall the details, try as he might. Something is clearly troubling James, even if he won’t talk about it; he’s uncommunicative with his wife and friends, he wakes up in a panic realizing he’s nearly strangled Sarah, and a few beers after work with his buddies turns into an ugly bender with James violently attacking both Sarah and Michael. Sarah has had enough, and leaves their trailer home to spend some time with her folks; after trashing his living room, James hops in his pickup and pays an unannounced visit to Raymond (Wilmer Valderrama), a friend who served with him and is dealing with his own problems. James is going to Washington, D.C., to see Henry (Diego Klattenhoff), another soldier from their company who is still recovering from the explosion, and he asks Raymond to tag along. Seeing Henry is a sobering experience for both James and Raymond, as he’s lost his legs and part of his hand and has no idea what his future holds. And while Henry helps James remember that traumatic day in Iraq, it doesn’t give him closure, instead sending him deeper into a self-destructive spiral.

The Dry Land is full of good intentions, and it’s obvious director and screenwriter Ryan Piers Williams takes his message about the problems of returning veterans seriously -- the end credits offer information on how to get help for PTSD before listing the cast and crew -- but in many respects the film lays it on a little thick in the name of realism. While James’ problems are believable and actor Ryan O’Nan plays him with understated honesty, it’s not enough that James has a lousy job -- he has to work in a slaughterhouse and kill cattle for a living. It’s not enough that he has a difficult relationship with his mother -- she has to be wildly irresponsible and in failing health. It’s not enough that he’s having trouble with his wife -- she has to be spending time with his best friend, too. And when James, apropos of nothing, checks the firing action on his handgun not long after returning home, it telegraphs the movie’s final act with unfortunate accuracy.

America Ferrera, who plays Sarah, delivers a fine, understated performance, and she’s good enough that it’s a shame she doesn’t have more to do (she clearly believed in this project, since she’s also an executive producer). The same can be said for Jason Ritter, who does well with the thankless best friend role, and though Wilmer Valderrama tends to overplay what little comic relief this movie has, his dramatic skills are solid and he and O’Nan are instantly believable as a pair of Army buddies struggling with a lot of baggage now that they’re home. The rough, dusty look of the film seems standard-issue for a lot of independent dramas set in the Southwest, but cinematographer Gavin Kelly gives the picture a clean, unobtrusive visual style that suits the material well. The Dry Land is Ryan Piers Williams’ first feature film, and it shows he has real promise -- he works well with actors and can tell a story in a clean and uncluttered manner without overstating the emotional material. But as a screenwriter, he has a way to go yet, and as powerful as this film is in its best moments, too much feels like the familiar tale of the damaged returning warrior that’s become sadly common in the past decade or so. The Dry Land deals with a subject that’s far too important and affects the lives of too many people to become an indie-film cliche, which is the way this picture sometimes feels, despite the love the filmmakers show for the real-life Jameses in America.

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  • Released: 2010
  • Rating: R
  • Review: About 15 minutes into The Dry Land, a redneck is trying to get a rise out of a veteran who just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, and between spits of tobacco juice he asks, “So, did the war fuck you up or what?” The old Hollywood cliche of the noble w… (more)

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