Review by Sean Boelman
From his fourth feature, it’s clear that filmmaker Axel Petersén has a strong command of the visual medium — it would just be great if he could do more with it. Shame on Dry Land has plenty of intriguing moments, accented by some genuinely fantastic visuals, but the script is frustratingly uneven and seemingly afraid to commit to any one direction.
The film follows a former fraudster who finds himself deeply involved with a band of Swedish expats — one of whom he previously tried to defraud — sending him on a desperate journey to find redemption. It’s a crime movie, but also a mystery, and there’s some fish-out-of-water comedy thrown in there too, and the end result is as muddled as it sounds.
Although this may be a bit of a cliche, Shame on Dry Land is the type of film where a lot of stuff happens, but it feels like nothing is really of consequence. The film meanders a lot, and despite frequent bursts of excitement and absurdity, the film’s weirdness only creates further disconnect, rather than drawing the viewer in.
While the film is clearly poking fun at the hedonism and excess of the upper class in an “eat the rich” sort of way, the messaging never really amounts to much more than that. And while this alone can often be enough to be compelling, Petersén’s script lacks the feeling of catharsis that would have made this effective.
A big part of why the film struggles so much is that Joel Spira does not have the right energy for this kind of role. The “hero” of a story like this is supposed to be very mysterious and perplexing, but the way Spira plays him ends up feeling somewhat aloof. It’s a role where a lot of stuff is happening to him, and he’s not reactive enough to work in that regard, but also lacks the control of the scene to be effective that way.
The character motivations are also somewhat confusing, and hold the film back from connecting with viewers. You will likely be waiting for everything to come together nicely with an ending, but the ending we are provided with is not particularly satisfying. Like the rest of the film, it just sort of comes and goes and doesn’t make a ton of sense.
The film obviously owes a lot to the noir genre, and its sun-soaked Maltese settings provide an excellent backdrop to create an alluringly mysterious atmosphere. While the cinematography by Josua Enblom is undeniably beautiful, the film’s ambiguity in its narrative and tone occasionally bleeds into its visual identity, giving it a strangely and unexpectedly artificial feel at times.
Ultimately, the best comparison this writer can make for Shame on Dry Land is probably Under the Silver Lake. Take that as you will. The awry (perhaps even off-putting) tone and lethargic pacing undermine the film’s visual and atmospheric strengths, but for those willing to get onto its askew wavelength, your experience might be better.
Shame on Dry Land is screening at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.