My dad was a Vietnam veteran. He did his time and came home to his wife (and eventually me). Because of when I was born, I never knew my father before the war. Therefore, I can’t really speak on his personality changes after he went off to fight the good fight. But in the same breath, I can tell you that we really don’t talk about that time except in very broad brush strokes. War is heck and hopefully my experience with The Dry Land is one that isn’t such a painful undertaking.
James (played by Ryan O’Nan) is an Army man and has come home from Iraq and arrives in the El Paso airport. He is greeted by his wife, Sarah (played by America Ferrera) and his best friend Michael (played by Jason Ritter). They exchange pleasantries and affection and go home to their doublewide trailer so that James can adjust to civilian life once again.
He wakes up the next morning to breakfast and a shower. James comes out of the shower and gets dressed. When he walks into the next room, he is surprised by the welcome home party. They talk to him about his time in Iraq and when asked about whether or not he can remember killing anybody, James says he can’t remember a thing. Later that night, Sarah and James lie down to go to sleep.
However, in the middle of the night James arm wraps too tightly around Sarah’s throat and accidentally chokes her before she escapes from his grasp. The next morning James drops off Sarah at work and they decide to not discuss further the incident from the previous night. James goes off and see his mother, Martha (played by Melissa Leo) who looks to be suffering from emphysema. He tries to do what he can to take care of her before heading off to work.
James is fortunate enough to get a job from David Valdez (played by Benito Martinez) who owns the local cattle slaughterhouse. His best friend, Michael also works there and shows him the ropes. Graphic images of a cattle being slaughtered follow (people who are squeamish should fast forward, I wish I did). James is still reluctant to answer questions about his experience in Iraq from Michael or fellow worker Joe (played by Evan Jones).
James goes home to Sarah, still noticeably disturbed by the images seen earlier. They have rough intercourse and go to sleep afterwards. The next day, he goes back to work and is persuaded into having drinks afterwards by Michael and Joe. This does not go well and soon we find the three in the country where Joe feels compelled to shoot rabbits. James and Joe get into a fight where Joe gets the better of him. Michael takes James home for medical attention.
Sarah naturally tries to help as well but James doesn’t realize where he is at and reacts in a violent rage before passing out. He wakes up the next morning and basically goes to his truck and doesn’t tell Sarah where he is going. James ends up going to the Army Medical Center to talk about some of what he is going through and gets some anxiety pills for his trouble. He eventually comes home to see Sarah leaving the house and Michael helping to pack her things.
Sarah won’t come back until James sorts out his life. She leaves. James becomes all violent back at the doublewide destroying quite a few things. He decides to visit his army buddy, Raymond Gonzales (played by Wilmer Valderrama) to see if he can piece together what happened in his army accident before he came home. James meets up with his buddy and from there the two go on a wild journey to put their lives back together. But can James be successful and regain a peaceful life?
As some might be able to tell, James (and Raymond to a smaller degree) is suffering from PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was engaged in a violent accident where he was stationed and never fully recovered emotionally. Therefore, he comes home to civilian life and is put into a very unfamiliar world where he doesn’t know what to do next. It also probably doesn’t help that his wife doesn’t understand what is going on (nor seems willing to deal with it), his mom is slowly dieing and he works at a slaughterhouse.
It is a recipe for disaster. It makes for a pretty depressing movie too. Without giving too much away, the ending isn’t much hope to go on. It paints a pretty terrible life for James at least in the short term. Suffice to say, if you are looking for growth and an uplifting story about somebody who can battle back from PTSD, you aren’t going to find much here. Instead, what you’ll get is something that you’ll need a Kleenex box for or perhaps some lighter fluid to make sure nobody sees the picture ever again.
The actors involved do a decent enough job but you never really find yourself liking any of them. Typically, I’ve liked America Ferrera in most movies I’ve seen her in but here she’s not much better than James himself. Well except for Ethan Suplee who plays Jack who honestly would have played a more convincing Michael given the chance. All in all, it is a movie that suffers from trying to push a message but fails in the execution.
The video is in 2.35:1 widescreen presentation. This is on a blu-ray, right? For a minute there, I was wondering if this wasn’t on a VHS tape. The low budget leads to a very pixilated image, one that is full of artifacts and noise. Colors are okay, but one shouldn’t expect much as they try to watch this movie. Darks are mediocre at best and you often spend more time trying to pick out small details than watching the obvious action. Sadly, the best video is in the first five minutes at the airport.
For the audio portion, we get a 5.1 English Dolby Surround track (2.0 Stereo Mix also available). Audio is marginally better than video but still leaves the viewer a bit flat especially when it comes to some of the violent scenes. The music should be noted as a high point. The simplicity of the score lends a helping hand to bringing the mature concepts to the forefront. Subtitles are provided for French and Spanish.
- Automatic Trailers: Diva (“In Therapy”) and Tropico de Sangre (“Rains of Injustice”)
- Audio Commentary: This is hosted by Ryan Piers Williams and America Ferrera. It is quite an energetic commentary and they talk about how they used actually army personnel from Fort Bliss in the opening shot. They talk a ton about scenery and the music to which they both scene utterly in love with. There are a few dead spots but it is a fairly decent commentary especially if you actually liked the movie or are interested in small budget film making.
- Theatrical Trailer 2:29: The original trailer, it works pretty well, but doesn’t really draw you in. Perhaps it was because I watched the trailer after suffering though the movie.
- Resources for Care: A list of websites that have help and information about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Suffice to say, if you have somebody in your family who is acting like James or even Raymond, get help immediately. I might make light of the movie, but it is a very serious condition that needs to be treated.
Ever since I became an adult, I’ve tried to connect more with my dad on a personal level. However, no matter how close I get there is still a part he keeps hidden within himself. Obviously, there were things that went on in the army and Vietnam that I will never truly understand (or perhaps my dad doesn’t either). The Dry Land tries to tell a tale of a man dealing with PTSD but never gives us any hope that he will be able to overcome what went on in his terrible accident.
As mentioned, the actors are decent enough but they never give you a layer of likeability which I think is needed to enjoy a movie like this. The disc doesn’t provide us any favors either with a low quality of video and audio. There is a decent commentary included that helps to explain some of the motivation but it still doesn’t make you feel any better about what is going on.
Somewhere between the depressing story and odd shooting choices (the slaughterhouse scenes were particularly un-nerving), I come away with a movie I simply can’t recommend. The disorder is very real and we should work to treat it better but there are better ways to go about it than this poorly produced independent piece. Perhaps with a different direction, it could have accomplished what it was meant to.