Small, focused and moving, The Dry Land is part of a growing body of films about the fallout from the wrong-headed decision to wage a preemptive war on Iraq.
Written and directed by Ryan Piers Williams, it tells a story that is being played out in homes across the country: of an unassuming young American, convinced that fighting in Iraq is serving the greater good of his country, who comes home damaged, unprepared for the rest of his life and uncertain whether he wants to live that life at all.
Ryan O'Nan plays James, a soldier from a small Texas town first seen as he returns from his tour of duty. His wife Sara (America Ferrara) and best friend Mike (Jason Ritter) are waiting to take him home -- and a little nervous about how he'll be. Everything is fine, he tells them; he's just glad to be back and ready to get on with his life.
But there's an unspoken darkness beneath the surface. There are holes in his memory about the attack that wound up sending him home. And he has nightmares, in which he winds up strangling his wife in bed in his sleep -- until she bites him and wakes him up.
Still, he's ready to leave the past behind. He takes a job at his father-in-law's meatpacking plant, where he must start at the bottom, slaughtering cattle. A drunken night out with the boys leads to another half-conscious assault on his wife. Frightened, she moves out on him.
Drunk and unhappy, he first seeks help at the El Paso VA hospital. Then he gets the idea of visiting his best friend from the army, Raymond (Wilmer Valderrama), who is unemployed and making his wife a little crazy. On a whim, the two head for Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, to check in on a third buddy, still hospitalized from the same attack.
The specifics of this story -- the attack James can't remember, the life he left behind that he no longer feels connected to -- are handled matter-of-factly, which makes them that much more affecting. It's hard not to be moved by James' encounter with his hospitalized pal, or when you start to see the world that he desperately wants to rejoin but can't.
But without ever talking about it, this film is yet another indictment of the futility, the hubris and the just plain wrong-headedness of the war on Iraq, a war that was started under false, perhaps even criminal, pretenses -- and which has left thousands of soldiers in similar or worse shape. James is just an example of the wave of post-traumatic stress cases that have swept through veterans of this pointless conflict, undermining a generation of soldiers, who sacrificed for a nation that's otherwise unwilling to do the same.
O'Nan is a subtly expressive newcomer who gives a touching and understated performance as a young man who can't cope with the pain and guilt that seemingly is eating him alive. It's a tough, restrained performance that can't help but bring a lump to the throat.
He is countered by Valderrama, far removed from his silly role on That 70s Show, as a tough, quick-witted ex-soldier who isn't afraid to grab for some of his own happiness. Ferrara and Ritter do their best with more thankless roles, as the lover and friend he left behind, who begin to lose patience with James' inability to either tell them what he needs or do something about it himself.
The Dry Land is tough stuff, a small and finely honed film about a massive problem that a corrupt and inept Republican administration foisted on us -- and which the current administration seems unable to solve. Reminiscent of The Messenger in its ability to capture unexpressed sorrow, its strong acting and story-telling make it a film that will haunt you.
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