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America Ferrera and Ryan O’Nan in THE DRY LAND (Photo: Jory Sutton/Maya Entertainment)

Written & Directed by Ryan Piers Willams

Produced by Heather Rae

Released by Maya Enertainment/Freestyle Releasing
USA. 92 min. Not Rated
With Ryan O
Nan, America Ferrera, Wilmer Valderrama, Jason Ritter & Melissa Leo

Take a kid with no career direction, encourage his aggressive tendencies, train him for combat, introduce trauma, and then send him home four years later with little or no safety net. It’s by now a familiar process. Why first-time writer/director Ryan Piers Williams feels the need to tell the most unremarkable, pared down version of this saga is a mystery to me. White, corn-fed West Texas boy James (Ryan O’Nan) returns home with selective amnesia after seeing fire in Iraq. Failing to adjust to a quiet life back home, he turns to the bottle (tallboys of Steele Reserve, actually), his quick temper flares, and soon even his supportive wife (Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera) walks out on him.

“The war really f*#ked you up good,” taunts a co-worker at the slaughterhouse where James has found temporary work. The killing of cattle, yawn, has reminded this one-time soldier of his recent trauma, thereby starting the disintegration process. Yes, the war has really f*#ked a lot of people up good, but do we need James’s rote story, or his co-worker’s middling insight to convince us of that? There’s nothing here that hasn’t been witnessed by any one of thousands of military families in this country.

In fact, posttraumatic stress disorder is far more insidious than Williams and O’Nan demonstrate here. In reality, returning soldiers are far more problematic within their communities than this loner. The film makes PTSD feel like a lesser issue. Whatever problems 2009’s The Messenger (a similar film about a returning Iraq vet) had, the issues it raised about the war’s domestic effects had real insight—it identified the damage done not only to soldiers but to their families and friends. Instead, these real-life issues feel like a springboard for The Dry Land. You want to know something about soldiers seeing fire, go see Restrepo.

Ferrera puts in an acceptable performance as James’s wife, but it’s no breakout dramatic role. Melissa Leo wheezes her way through the part of his ailing mother, but talented as she is, perhaps she’s a little too committed as this pitiful woman. Wilmer Valderrama (Fez from That’70’s Show) is a breath of fresh air. He comes out guns blazing, full of personality. As James’s combat buddy, he’s the only point of reference we have to the war itself. By making a film about Iraq without even a hint of a flashback sequence, Williams asks the audience to accept only an anecdotal version of the war, and without Valderrama’s great reactions (excited, resentful, and regretful all in the same beat), we’d have trouble believing the war even happened.

What’s also frustrating is the directing. More than one scene begins with characters walking into a room, standing near the doorway with coats in hand, and delivering lines without a sense of the space. There’s not much style to speak of, both the locations and the sets are too plain, and an acoustic guitar score that begins at frame one signals the dreary tone far too early. I feel a bit unfair for coming down so hard on this modest film, but when an important, pertinent story could have been told in so many more poignant ways, call it a sense of duty. Michael Lee
July 30, 2010



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