Landing at the airport in El Paso, James (Ryan O’Nan) looks briefly at ease. He’s back from Iraq and his wife Sarah (America Ferrera) is there to meet him. They hug, she smiles, and it’s almost okay that his mom’s not there, even if, as Sarah explains, “She couldn’t stand all the hours in the truck.” He’s here and he’s alive. That seems to be enough.
Of course it’s not. As James gazes out the window of his best friend Michael’s (Jason Ritter) pickup truck, the view is less than welcoming, miles of parched grass and deteriorating diners. Sarah leans into him, listing the details of her life that’s gone on—it’s been busy at the bank, she lilts, because girls are getting laid off. Going home in The Dry Land is going to be complicated.
James’ worries are both explicit and not. Like so many returning vets—in movies and in life—he finds it hard to say what’s on his mind. Eager to get back, he admits later, he was reluctant to admit that he was having trouble remembering what happened in theater. Better to put that behind him, to forget and move on. When his young nephew asks, “Did you kill anyone?”, James only sets his jaw and says he can’t remember. His sister changes the subject.
Determined to do right by Sarah, James approaches her skeptical father, David (Benito Martinez), for a job. It’s no coincidence that David runs a slaughterhouse (“I expect you to work harder than all the other boys out there,” David warns). This makes for a mighty and obvious metaphor, as James arrives at work ready to make good, only to be confronted by one bloody mess after another. Michael and the other coworkers instruct him patiently, demonstrating how to zap cows’ heads, hang them from hooks, and slit open their guts. As splashes of vivid red spiral down the drain, the camera watches from James’ angle. This is not just a job. It’s a flashback in the making.
Though James does his best to keep back the pain, it’s clear that he’s immersed in a losing battle. His efforts with Sarah are especially upsetting, as when one night’s slumber ends with her gagging to consciousness, his embrace having turned into brutal, nightmare-inspired chokehold. Her own efforts to help James to talk with her, to “open up,” are bound for failure. In one of the film’s least imaginative moments, he responds to her seduction by turning her around and taking her from behind, against the bathroom sink so that his face and hers are both doubly visible in the mirror. Unable to break down what’s happening, he takes the worst possible option, a night out drinking with his buddies, resulting in yet another episode of unconscious aggression.
Though James is set on a predictable course—that is, he’ll need to remember what happened, who he killed, and how his fellow soldiers suffered—The Dry Land makes room for some nuanced details, most often in O’Nan’s performance. When at last James sets off on the journey across his own internal dry land, he starts with a visit to a buddy, Raymond (Wilmer Valderrama). He’s having his own communication issues, made clear when James arrives and Raymond’s inside his home, glued to the PlayStation while his wife and kids swirl around him, ranging from unhappy to oblivious.
The guys’ subsequent road trip to visit yet another survivor, Henry (Diego Klattenhoff), still laid up at Walter Reed, leads them all to glimpse the diverse ways that being alive means different things to different people. As they try to understand and appreciate those differences in one another, they come to some potential terms with their own stories, heir guilt and anger and mostly good intentions.
For the most part, the film focuses on James’ wartime experience and PTSD (in this remarkable case, the military, in the form of a doctor played by Barry Shabaka Henley, responds almost instantly to his request for treatment). But it finds its most effective corollary for James’ trauma in the story of his mother, Martha (the magnificent Melissa Leo). Dismayed at first to hear that she wasn’t up to the “hours in the truck,” James soon learns that Martha’s illness has proceeded apace during his time away.
Tethered to an oxygen tank but still smoking cigarettes (“I can’t seem to go two feet without coughing up a storm”), she too refuses to talk about what’s ailing her or take care of herself. Like her son, she resists outside help and, especially, conversation. She can handle it, she insists. When she reminds him that his daddy was a “real mess when he came back” from Vietnam, James isn’t ready yet to see himself in that bit of story. But Martha’s rheumy eyes and trembling hands—the history she embodies, of struggling with wars at home, while her men leave and return—suggest that he will.