SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL REVIEWS - THE DRY LAND
by Paul Fischer
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Director - Ryan Piers Williams
The Iraq war has given the film industry plenty of cinematic fodder, mostly forgettable, but the emotional traumas faced by returning soldiers is relatively uncharted in this particular context until now. There’s Jim Sheridan’s Brothers, but offering a more realistic and emotionally grounded perspective, is The Dry Land, a superbly crafted film from first time feature director Ryan Piers Williams.
The film’s central character is James (an impressive Ryan O’Nan) who returns from Iraq to try and fit back into his small-town life in Texas. His beautiful wife (America Ferrera), his mother (Melissa Leo), and his friend (Jason Ritter) try to provide support, without ever realising or understanding the pain and suffering he feels since his tour of duty ended. Feeling isolated and subconsciously taking out unwanted emotional aggression on those closest to him, especially his wife, James reconnects with an army buddy (Wilmer Valderrama), who provides him with compassion and camaraderie during his battle to process his experiences in Iraq. But their reunion also exposes the different ways that war affects people—at least on the surface, and this emotional undercurrent becomes the centrepiece of this film.
The Dry Land is a hauntingly beautiful, quietly understated but ultimately powerful film that explores the fragmented life of a returning soldier without ever belabouring the point. Writer/director Ryan Piers Williams has fashioned a beautiful script that is emotionally sharp yet sub tle in its development of both the film’s central character and the dry land, both physical and metaphorical. To visually explore small town America, cinematographer Gavin Kelly frames the landscape beautifully, with earthy brown hues that accentuate this barren, isolated country, and Dean Parks’ music is quietly evocative.
Newcomer Ryan O’Nan is a major find, the emotional centre of this tale of emotional reconnection and memory. He gives an extraordinarily honest performance to the point where one feels that this is not just a simple performance. He captures the complexity of the character and inhabits his every facet. America Ferrera, who first came to Sundance almost 10 years ago, has achieved fame as Ugly Betty and emotionally and comically complex as hrer Betty is, as a dramatic actress, Ferrera is sublime, completely transformed intop this southern wife desperately trying to reconnect with her husband. Ferrera is luminous on camera, and here she is unforgettable, powerful, fragile and full of emotional range, as she delivers another brilliant performance that is multi layered.
Sensitively directed by the talented Ryan Williams, A Dry Land is a film that truly deserves to be seen on the big screen. Ferrera’s cache as a successful actress should help generate interest, commercially, but the film will hopefully be discovered on its own merits as an eloquent, poetic and deeply human work that rises above typical mediocrity.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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