Review: The Dry Land


The Dry Land

A war's psychological toll can linger far beyond the war's end. As long as war veterans spend their days reliving the horrors of battle and trying to make sense of experiences that are inherently senseless, we're all reminded that war's true cost is far greater than flag-draped coffins and mangled limbs. The greatest cost of any war is the lingering insanity of those who fight it – and our collective insanity also.

The Dry Land is an effective and often riveting take on this loss of sanity, specifically the harrowing mental breakdowns caused by post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, which an astounding number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are suffering through. Opening today at the Arbor, the film is an unflinching look at one soldier's descent into madness as he returns to civilian life in a small West Texas town.

From the minute he sets foot in the dusty, impoverished environs of his hometown after a brutal tour of duty, it's obvious that James (Ryan O'Nan) hasn't left the war behind him. Although the carnage he witnessed still haunts him, he has no memory of a pivotal event: a rocket-propelled grenade attack on his Humvee that killed and severely wounded several members of his squad. Depressed, moody, self-medicating with alcohol and prone to violent rages, James quickly loses control of his life.

James' relationship with his wife, Sarah (America Ferrera), is the greatest casualty. Sarah finds him uncommunicative, frighteningly combative and anything but loving; in a very telling sex scene (it's certainly no love scene), he's coldly forceful and completely passionless. In the midst of a nightmare, he almost chokes her. And after a friend carries him in the door one night, passed out and bloody after a few hours of drinking and brawling, he suddenly awakens and attacks Sarah as she tries to clean his wounds. Afraid of her husband -- who's no longer the man she married -- Sarah moves out, leaving James to deal with his demons on his own.

James finds little comfort even from his long-suffering and sickly mother, Martha (Melissa Leo). She is unfailingly maternal and understands his problems, but is dealing with her own lonely desperation and can do little more than remind him that his father suffered the same trauma after his tour in Vietnam. James finally finds some comfort in the company of a former army buddy, Raymond (Wilmer Valderrama), a kindred spirit who accompanies him on a beer-fueled road trip to visit a wounded comrade at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. James hopes the visit will help him make sense of all that has happened.

The Dry Land is powerfully stark, a story as harsh and gritty as its West Texas setting. Filmed in a grainy, documentary-like style (indeed, a gruesome scene of a cow being slaughtered is completely real), the film perfectly captures both its small-town working class milieu and the dark, tormented world of those afflicted with PTSD. Such a story is inevitably anti-war, but The Dry Land isn't political at all; it's more of a warning about an epidemic of mental illness among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

In another nod to realism, The Dry Land also delves into the disastrous effects of PTSD on James' family and friends, as if PTSD is a contagious disease that infects them with alcoholism, depression and rage. As James' loved ones watch him become increasingly unhinged, their lives spiral downward also, until they behave in ways that seem selfish and callous. But their behavior is less about selfishness than hopelessness and despair.

Writer/director Ryan Piers Williams' script is lean, taut and meticulously researched, with direction to match. The Dry Land has not a single wasted line or moment, with every conversation and scene focused on developing the characters, furthering the story or hammering home the movie's message. But while this wholly economical approach to storytelling makes for a gripping piece of cinema, it's also a drawback at times. Williams develops the characters and relationships fully enough to make everything believable -- but unfortunately, he develops them no further. From the nearly ubiquitous James to a scruffy bartender who has only a line or two, all the characters seem quite real -- so real that I wanted to learn more about many of them, especially James and Sarah. Nothing essential is missing, but the film could easily stand an extra 15 minutes of backstory development, even if it doesn't directly relate to the matter at hand.

Speaking of which, there are times when The Dry Land is overly earnest and relentless in delivering its message. Of course, the film's raison d’être is to be a cautionary tale about the horrors of PTSD, and it does a fine job in this respect. But with nearly every scene reminding us of war's grim psychological legacy, the effect is a bit repetitive. This thematic repetition may not inspire an audience to say enough already, but midway through the film, we certainly get the point. I realize that the message is very important, but The Dry Land would be a slightly more ambitious and memorable film if it were a bit broader in scope and ventured away from its central point every now and then.

The ensemble cast's performances are universally polished and subtly realistic. The standout is O'Nan, who as James is unnervingly believable in all his rapidly changing moods, careening from drunken anger to pitiful loneliness to glassy-eyed perplexity. O'Nan's James reminded me of Jeremy Renner's adrenaline-fueled Sgt. William James in The Hurt Locker, although Sgt. James is tormented in an entirely different way.

As Sarah, the always appealing Ferrera (also the film's executive producer) is well suited for a role that is alternately sexy and, in the film's uglier scenes, totally unglamorous. My only quibble is that Sarah's Texan drawl isn't quite consistent and disappears during a few of her more histrionic moments. But as a longtime Ferrera fanboy with an unabashed (some say pathetic) crush on the actress, I'll forgive a few minor missteps in an otherwise solid performance.

The supporting roles also are well cast, with completely natural performances in very disparate roles. Leo is a scene stealer as the wheezing but unbending Martha, a shopworn matriarch with enough good humor to flirt with a heart surgeon whom she hopes will save her life. As James' friend Michael, Jason Ritter is equal parts loyal caregiver and worst enemy, as hurtful as he is helpful. And Valderrama virtually inhabits Raymond, the sort of randy, semi-responsible friend most of us know, a guy who thinks a twelve-pack and a road trip are the best medicine for the soul. If only treating PTSD were so simple.

Austin/Texas Connections: The Dry Land was filmed partly in West Texas. It recently screened at the Marfa Film Festival and Dallas International Film Festival. Williams is from El Paso, attended film school at the University of Texas, and worked for the Austin Film Festival organization for several years.