It’s unpleasant in Kiewarra. There’s a drought, and the earth has shriveled up and become prunish in appearance. And the community… The community is devastated. A father, Luke (Martin Dingle-Wall), has killed his wife and son, sparing his infant daughter, before turning the gun on himself in the desert. Returning to the town to attend the funeral of his friend and his family, Federal Agent Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) is not welcome with open arms. He left the town twenty years ago following the death of classmate and romantic interest Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt), also a friend of Luke. It’s a little kept secret that the townspeople believe he and Luke drowned her in the river, and the fact that Aaron had left Ellie a note telling her to meet him at the river after class only adds fuel to the fire.
In its opening minutes, The Dry tasks us with determining whether or not we think Luke killed his family, but the film quickly drops the facade as Aaron uncovers more and more that suggests a different origin of the murders. And thus we can feel a little more comforted as well that Luke didn’t kill Ellie and Aaron didn’t have any involvement in her death. But, of course, the circumstances are condemning, and Aaron being an outsider to this tight-knit community means that truth is evasive as the townspeople have damning secrets they want kept, even if they were to exonerate suspects for Luke and his family’s murder.
Eric Bana plays the role of Aaron Falk with dedication, exhibiting a character who is brooding, but not overly so. He wants to prove his childhood friend’s innocence, but he still doesn’t know how Ellie died. With two murder cases on his mind, the drought of Kiewarra and combative townspeople prove to be a bleak, fitting setting for Aaron to investigate – The Dry makes of the desert what Fargo made of the winter.
The Dry will be released in theaters May 21st.
Will (Winston Duke) has perhaps the most important responsibility that a man can have – he determines who will live on planet Earth, and who will not. He has nine days to make his verdict on five individuals, as he questions them with hypotheticals similar to those one might see on psychological tests. Will takes his job very seriously, and feels the weight of responsibility immensely when a particularly discerning individual, Emma (Zazie Beetz), takes an interest in Will himself, and, not only that, Will’s life on Earth before his present occupation.
Will’s perception of life is greatly marked by his lived experience and what he sees on old-style/CRT televisions stacked one on top of the other in his living room. For each life he grants on Earth, he is able to see from that person’s perspective all that they experience. What he sees informs his choices on who he grants life to. He spends hours poring over these television displays and feels responsibility when misfortune occurs to the individuals he gave life to. After the death of one of his successful candidates, Will is crushed, especially as it becomes more and more obvious the woman committed suicide. He tasks his current candidates with watching the televisions and asks a number of them what they would do in certain scenarios; a scene of a teenager being bullied in school proves to be a frequent subject of Will’s inquiry.
The ‘application process’ occurring in Nine Days might remind one of the job application process. Will exhibits the same detachment to his applicants that interviewers do, and he wants to be certain that the individual he offers life to is the right candidate for the role. He doesn’t want to observe a life of misery on his television set. He doesn’t want to set anyone up for failure. Will’s worldview is that one has to be strong – the outside world is cruel. In an exception to the rule, he shares with Emma a previous experience of his on Earth. He wasn’t happy with his life, and ultimately feels like he didn’t make enough of the time he had. But when Will stepped in as a substitute for a lead theatrical role, he gave a performance that made him feel so full of life. Unfortunately, he never explored his interest in theatre further.
The story and aesthetic of Nine Days greatly recalls that of plays performed at the theatre. Despite being a film, a single setting, a small cast, and components of Aristotelian tragedy allow Nine Days to capture the same grandiosity of stories told at the theatre. When informing a candidate that they are not a fit for the “role” of life, Will slides over a pen and paper and tells them to write down an experience they saw on the TV that they would like to experience. Nine Days takes its similarities with theatre and realizes them in a black box theatre hidden room in Will’s house where he does his best to make the experience written down as real as possible for the candidate through props and theatrical equipment before they are dismissed. It’s touching, but also very unsettling.
One likely sees from a mile away that films like Nine Days are life-affirming. However, for this film, it’s impossible to dismiss the feeling of melancholy. Edson Oda captures how tragic the feeling of regret truly is, and in many ways, exhibits that regret is akin to not living at all.
We don’t see many films like Nine Days at the theaters, and for that, I can’t think of a better choice of film to wrap up the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival.
Nine Days will be released in theaters July 30th.