These days it’s rare to find a brand new fully Australian feature in your local multiplex, let alone a sequel; it’s almost worth seeing Force of Nature: The Dry 2 for the novelty factor alone.
And while The Dry might as well have been referring to the dry spell between local box office hits, the huge success of the first film didn’t exactly inspire a flood of knock-offs. Seems the days of one successful Australian film unleashing a dozen similar efforts died around the time of You and Your Stupid Mate (2005).
That lack of rival attempts to cash in doesn’t exactly reflect well on the local industry, because the formula here is about as safe as it gets. Streaming schedules and the public broadcasters are full of whodunnits and murder mysteries; the first Knives Out and the recent Poirot revival have shown that cinema audiences will turn up for a decent mystery. Force of Nature has the local market all to itself; all it has to do is convince audiences to keep on coming back.
Federal police detective Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) has a complicated relationship with the (fictional) Giralang mountain ranges (Force of Nature was filmed at the Otways and the Yarra Valley in Victoria). He loves the wild, but as a boy his mother went missing there during a family camping trip. Now an informant he’s relying on to crack a major money laundering case has gotten separated from her party and vanished in the rain forest while on a corporate retreat.
And it’s a very rainy rain forest out there (yes, the sequel to The Dry is basically The Wet). Falk knows all too well that once you get off the track the landscape can just swallow you up. The question is, did Alice (Anna Torv) lose her way out there, or did she want to vanish?
Falk knows she’s not a willing participant in his investigation. Both he and his partner Carmen (Jacqueline McKenzie) have been turning the screws on her, with some serious leverage (Alice stole a large sum of money) to force her co-operation.
But as Falk interrogates the other members of her party – boss Jill (Deborra-Lee Furness) and co-workers Lauren (Robin McLeavy), Beth (Sisi Stringer) and Bree (Lucy Ansell) – a third option becomes increasingly likely. Relentlessly unlikable even before her sneaking around the office became obvious, it’s more than possible that she was murdered out in the bush.
If it was business, then Jill – or her husband (Richard Roxburgh) are the prime suspects. If it was personal, the spotlight’s on everyone else. The only way to get a definite answer is to find Alice. And a storm is closing in.
Adapted from Jane Harper’s second Falk novel, the overall structure is a little shaky (the ongoing flashbacks to young Falk’s search for his mother don’t add much), but the plot has its strong points. Being a missing person search for much of the length prevents the film from turning into a traditional whodunnit early on; you can’t have a collection of murder suspects when you don’t have a murder, even if they all have shady pasts and the setting (an isolated mountain lodge) keeps everyone in place for the inevitable big reveal.
There’s also a number of threads that never quite pay off. You expect that to some extent: a mystery requires red herrings. But in cutting the novel down into a movie, some storylines have been truncated in a way that leaves elements unfinished or out of place. An 80s-era serial killer has handily left his empty shack in the mountains; the local cops seem unusually disinterested in finding Alice despite the massive search. As for the corporate skulduggery Alice was supposedly uncovering? Best not to think about it.
Director Robert Connolly does create a strong sense of threat around the wet and wild locations, even if the weather isn’t always as obliging as it could have been. And while Falk as a character doesn’t give Bana a whole lot to work with, having him as the story’s (mostly) calm centre is a smart way to go considering just about everyone else is wilfully abrasive and in the case of Alice extremely dislikeable (which works to the film’s advantage – who might have wanted her dead? Who didn’t?).
A sequel to The Dry was always going to be a challenge. That film worked in large part because Falk had a strong connection to the setting and the suspects. While this tries to recreate that angle with the flashbacks to his past, it’s a poor substitute.
The menacing landscape fills that gap a little, and Bana’s charisma – plus some decent performances from the supporting cast – also helps. As with all sequels, the big question here is: is it as good as the original?
Well, no. But it’s no damp squib either.
Force of Nature is in cinemas on 8 February.