The Dry Land -- Film Review



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PARK CITY -- It's no secret that thousands of soldiers are coming back from Iraq and their lives are shattered, but no one wants to think too much about it. Writer-director Ryan Piers Williams does, and he has been researching and reading about the subject for five years. The result is "The Dry Land," a troubling meditation on one man's fall from grace. It's rough stuff and not for everyone, but there should be an audience -- most likely at home -- that cares enough to seek it out.

"The Dry Land" is not the first movie about returning vets, but there are never too many as long as the story is compelling. Williams largely succeeds with the tale of James (Ryan O'Nan), a salt-of-the-earth soldier from rural Texas who longs to be reunited with his wife (America Ferrera) and pick up the pieces of his life. Even he doesn't realize how severely damaged he is.

The vacant look in his eyes is the first clue. But what's really going on beneath the surface rage and alienation that's common in returning vets is hard to say. If Williams' screenplay has one weakness it's making James a specific, uniquely drawn person, and not just a universal soldier. We get few suggestions of what he was like before he left, and only when he visits his ill but feisty mother (Melissa Leo) do we understand that he had a caretaker's personality.

At home, he is loving with his wife -- but only to a point. He is unable to experience any real intimacy with her -- physically or emotionally -- and then the demons start coming out. Haunted by a bad dream, he starts choking her in his sleep. And when he's awake, violent, irrational behavior starts to surface. His new job in his father-in-law's slaughterhouse, shown in horrific and graphic detail, does nothing to calm him down.

Unfortunately, James doesn't remember the incident in Iraq that has left him so emotionally scarred, so he sets out on a road trip to visit his army buddies for an explanation. Raymond (Wilmer Valderrama) can't -- or won't -- shed any light on it, and together they set out for Walter Reed Hospital to visit Henry (Diego Klattenhoff), or what's left of him. As a double amputee who can no longer even control his body functions, Klattenhoff gives the film's most deeply felt and riveting performance, and in his one scene he imparts to James the information he's been seeking.

But what he learns about the fateful event in Iraq is not a pretty picture and the knowledge does not set him free. Instead, he goes back to Texas and becomes even more violent. In the end, salvation is possible but not assured.

O'Nan has obviously poured a lot of himself into the role and gives a fine, if not galvanizing, performance. Shot in the plains of New Mexico by Gavin Kelly, the film looks appropriately dusty, and Dean Parks' mournful guitar score sets the tone. In the end, if Williams' message that attention must be paid to these wounded souls is heeded, then he will have done his job well.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production companies: Maya Entertainment, Take Fountain Prods., Besito Films
Cast: Ryan O'Nan, America Ferrera, Jason Ritter, Wilmer Valderrama, Melissa Leo, June Diane Raphael, Diego Klattenhoff, Evan Jones, Benito Martinez, Ana Claudia Talancon, Ethan Suplee, Barry Shabaka Henley
Director: Ryan Piers Williams
Writer: Ryan Piers Williams
Producer: Heather Ray
Executive producers: Sergio Aguero, America Ferrera
Director of photography: Gavin Kelly
Production designer: David Baca
Music: Dean Parks
Costume designer: Jerry Carnivale
Editor: Sabine Hoffman
Sales: UTA
No rating, 92 minutes