For almost a decade, Americans have lived with war in a very real sense. The threat of terrorism on US soil is constant. As such, the population of people who personally know someone in the military is growing. Fighting to defend one’s country and its interests at home or abroad is a noble undertaking, but it is understandably stressful beyond belief as well. As a result, sometimes our brave men and women don’t always return as the same person – if they’re fortunate enough to return at all. War is hell and hell has a reputation of affecting people negatively. The Dry Land tells the story of one returning soldier and his personal struggle with the rigors of war. In doing so, the film gives a voice to many soldiers who feel silenced by the way violence, fear and guilt have changed them. The story feels authentic and timely, but is also relentlessly depressing.
James (Ryan O’Nan) is a returning soldier from Iraq who is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Everything seems fine at first as he readjusts to his old life in Texas with his young wife, Sara (America Ferrera). His memory of the Iraqi conflict, however, is spotty and he can’t seem to remember the details of a major engagement his unit was involved in. When James takes a job with his friend Michael (Jason Ritter) at the local slaughterhouse, the bloodshed seems to trigger something in James, causing him to attack his wife in his sleep as well as become hypersensitive to images of death. Growing increasingly uneasy with his behavior, James reconnects with fellow soldiers, like Ray (Wilmer Valderrama), to find out exactly what happened in Iraq that’s turned him into the walking time bomb he’s become.
The authenticity of The Dry Land is outstanding. James’ world is simple and small. He lives in a trailer with his loyal dog and his wife who is emotionally invested in reality television. After a long, physical day at work, there’s very little to do for entertainment except get drunk and shoot animals. It would be a cliché representation of the lives of the working class poor who make up the bulk of our soldiers if it didn’t feel so true. It’s from these dusty, sparsely populated towns and densely packed inner cities that our modern gladiators are borne. Writer and director Ryan Piers Williams thankfully presents James’ life with a non-judgmental eye.
This sober reflection on the life of one broken man, however, makes The Dry Land that much more depressing. The film is already dealing with a mirthless and sensitive issue; presenting James’ challenges without a point of view brings the subject matter into an almost tangible reality that will leave viewers feeling helpless to remedy the situation for our real life military men and women. The events that unfold in James’ post-war life are just a series of depressing moments with no hope for any kind of happiness – only coping with a persistent problem. The filmmakers made an attempt to include some levity to lighten the mood now and again, but even those scenes have dark undertones, like when James and Ray chug beers while driving and almost cause a head-on collision. “Let’s do that again,” Ray commands and the reckless behavior continues. It’s moments like this that endear the characters to audiences, but also remind them of these soldiers’ close relationship with death.
The entire cast turns in an impressive performance right down to the day players. All of the actors come off natural and believable and interact with each other as if they’ve lived together their entire lives. Ryan O’Nan as James carries the film exceedingly well and delivers his performance without political statement. He’s simply an average guy, dealing with a situation that he doesn’t quite understand and doesn’t know how to resolve. In many ways, audiences will see a bit of themselves in James.
The pacing of the film feels odd at times, with James’ life spiraling out of control much faster than viewers will most likely expect. Also, the story doesn’t seem as focalized as it could be. In a film like The Dry Land where a protagonist is looking for a psychological explanation, it’s important to illustrate his or her state of mind through the characters in his or her life. In this film, however, some of the characters feel extraneous in that they cease to propel the story or give viewers relevant information about James. At times they seem to exist solely to populate the universe of the film, which isn’t necessarily a criticism.
The only real criticism to take away from The Dry Land is that it’s sad without being cathartic. James’ life and the lives of real soldiers going through the same challenges seem hopeless – as presented here. A community can support their soldiers, doctors can prescribe medication, but nothing ever erases the reality of being responsible for another human being and failing. That guilt, it seems, can be just as destructive as war itself.