Judge Gordon Sullivan has his garden hose out.
The journey home may be the hardest battle he's ever fought.
It sounds like something out of Hollywood's version of a fairytale book: an aspiring indie director takes a heart-wrenching story from the headlines and turns it into a socially conscious directorial debut. That's The Dry Land and its director Ryan Piers Williams in a nutshell. Back in 2005, Williams saw a news story about an Iraq war veteran who came back from his tour a changed man with considerable difficulty adjusting to civilian life. The story hit Williams and the idea for The Dry Land was born. However, unlike many indie directors, Williams was able to cast some seriously good (and fairly well-known) actors in his flick, including America Ferrara. With the help of those strong performances, Williams turns The Dry Land into an intense meditation on the hidden cost of war.
The Dry Land is the story of James (Ryan O'Nan) a soldier who has just returned from a tour in the desert. He has a lovely wife (America Ferrara, Ugly Betty) and a new job at the local slaughterhouse thanks to David Valdez (Benito Martinez, The Shield). Despite their assistance, and the support of the local townspeople, James simply doesn't feel at home anymore. He won't talk about his experiences in the military, but it's obvious to those around him that something is wrong. He moves through his life, seemingly disconnected, until violence breaks him out of his rut.
The Dry Land is all about the dangers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the kind of ailment that lies hidden in the cost of waging war, its effects little seen until it's too late. Rather than take a sensational, or even documentary approach, The Dry Land pares PTSD back to its essential human core. The film dramatizes the numbness, the pulling away, and the bursts of violence that characterize the clinical aspects of the disorder. By giving them a tangible human cost, setting them nowhere in particular and amongst average people struggling, the wide dimensions of the problem become visible.
What's great about The Dry Land, though, is that it never feels like an anti-war PSA, nor even an awareness-raising film. Instead, it's a character-driven drama featuring some really talented actors and actresses. Ryan O'Nan gets the thankless job of acting moody and withdrawn as the afflicted James, while America Ferrera goes to great lengths to show her love for James and desire to bring him back to his whole self. Other actors like the dependable Benito Martinez and Ethan Suplee round out the cast, giving a solid idea of the reality of PTSD's effects on the wider community. All of them are shot in Williams' intimate, gritty style. Together their performances raise the movie above most indie dramas.
All, however, is not perfect with The Dry Land. Although PTSD as a buzzword has only been around a couple of decades, the idea of battle stress, and an understanding that soldiers tend to come home changed has been with us for some time. In fact, some might argue that The Deer Hunter showed the human cost of war, especially Christopher Walken's portrayal of the broken suicide. In that sense, The Dry Land isn't saying anything particularly new. One desperately hopes that the film reaches those who think PTSD is a myth or don't see it as a problem for modern soldiers, but to those with experience in the way the military has been portrayed, The Dry Land offers little new.
The film is also not shy about showing the brutality that can emerge with PTSD. The film isn't afraid to show us James' new job in the slaughterhouse (and his disaffected reaction) in gory detail. Cows being slaughtered alongside soldiers is nothing new (Eisenstein did it in the 1920s), but American cinema doesn't often show the details of the abattoir. The film also isn't shy about its language nor its sex. There's some pretty violent encounters between James and Sarah. Combined, these elements might turn off a number of viewers who would be sympathetic to Williams' otherwise strong portrayal of the struggles of an American military man.
On Blu-ray, The Dry Land proves a pretty solid package. The 2.35:1 AVC encoded transfer looks appropriately gritty. There's lots of grain throughout the picture, though with the exception of some of the darker moments it looks well rendered. Colors are slightly desaturated, which fits the Texas local, and detail is fairly strong. The 5.1 audio doesn't do much, but for a dialogue-driven drama everything comes out crisp and clear. The film's main extra is a breezy commentary between Williams and Ferrera that keeps things low-key while discussing the film's origins and the details of the production. There's also the film's trailer, and a list of resources for those struggling with PTSD.
As an independent directorial debut, The Dry Land is fantastic, showing both the director and his stars in a positive light. The film also gets serious points for dramatically tackling a sensitive issue in American life.
The Dry Land may not be easy to love, but it is certainly not guilty.
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