A soldier’s uneasy readjustment to civilian life is both ages-old reality and well-worn film subject. In this story of an Iraq veteran’s return to Texas, debuting writer-director Ryan Piers Williams draws upon countless earlier dramas without adding anything fresh or memorable to the discussion.
Shaped more for message than for convincing narrative impact, “The Dry Land” ends up feeling like a PSA to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder.
As the war-stunned James, Ryan O’Nan carries an aura of psychic injury and displacement. Thrashing between reticence and violent flashbacks, James tries the patience of his adoring wife ( America Ferrera) and the sympathetic friend ( Jason Ritter) who increasingly looks like a rival.
The unstable vet, determined to uncover the truth about the devastating event that eludes his memory but nonetheless haunts him, points his pickup toward Washington. Joined by an Army buddy ( Wilmer Valderrama), he aims to visit a recovering member of their unit in Walter Reed.
Despite the bleak working-class milieu, the narrative strains to transcend a sense of artifice. The foreboding of an early, unblinkingly graphic scene at the slaughterhouse where James works gives way to lackluster melodrama.
In his brief screen time as the maimed soldier, Diego Klattenhoff delivers the film’s most affecting performance. He and Melissa Leo, as James’ ailing mother, are less hampered than other cast members by the script’s heavy-handed exposition, and truly hold the screen.
— Sheri Linden
“The Dry Land.” MPAA rating: R. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, West Hollywood, and AMC Broadway Santa Monica.