An official selection of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, The Dry Land, is the story of an Iraq War veteran returning to his west Texas home town only to find that he is unable to cope with normal small town life after the horrors of the war. Written and directed by Ryan Piers Williams, and starring Ryan O’Nan as returning veteran James, the film is a dispassionate look at the lingering effects of war on the men sent to fight it when they are returned to civilian life.
Although he has no memories of specifics, James is haunted by one particular attack in which two of his buddies were killed and another badly wounded. He has nightmares. He wakes up screaming and ready to attack; at one point nearly strangling his wife Sarah, played by America Ferrera, sleeping next to him. He is suspicious of the relationship between his wife and his best friend, Michael. He gets drunk and becomes violent, threatening his friends with a shot gun. He takes a job in the meat packing plant owned by his father-in-law, a job that he had always refused to consider. The blood of the slaughter house may well symbolize the blood and slaughter of war, if not it surely keeps it fresh in his mind. This is a man suffering from post traumatic stress disorder; this is a man in need of medical help.
Unable to communicate with his wife who eventually leaves him and goes to stay with her parents, and becoming more and more violent, James goes off to visit one of his comrades from Iraq, Wilmer Valderama, to see if he can shed some light on the attack that killed their friends. But he either can’t give him any information, or won’t tell him what happened.
Then, on a kind of quest, which occupies most of the second half of the movie, they both travel to Walter Reed Hospital to see the other survivor of the attack who had been severely crippled. While he does learn what happened¸ the knowledge doesn’t seem to help him very much. He returns home to find his mother in the hospital with a heart problem, and himself still unable to deal with life at home. With everything closing in on him, it seems that life is no longer worth living. This is the real question of the film: how does someone go on with the everyday business of life after the horrors of war.
Despite a drunken rampage or two, the actor’s performances are low key. O’Nan keeps his emotions bottled up. He is the typical embodiment of the stoic, who finds it difficult to communicate what he is feeling. Ferrera, as the sympathetic wife who only wants to help, but is continually frustrated by her husband’s silence, also gives an understated performance. Melissa Leo plays James’ mother, and is very effective as the dying woman who never really sees what is happening to her son. Valderama provides a nice contrast to James. Raymond, his character, is out of work and not getting along all that well with his wife, but he doesn’t seem to be suffering in quite the same way as James. He seems more inclined to escape from his demons, if indeed he has any, with booze and broads.
The Dry Land is not a splashy film. I don’t know that it is the first to point out that the effects of war on those that we send to fight do not disappear when they come home. I don’t know that it will be the last. So long as wars will be fought, there will be a need for someone to stand up and say, they are not fought without a cost. They do not leave those who fought unwounded. The Dry Land is a film worth seeing.
The DVD now out has commentary by Ferrera and Williams, a trailer, and information on resources available for veteran’s care.