There is something amiss in Force of Nature: The Dry 2, the sequel to the 2020 mystery crime thriller The Dry – and it’s not just the title. The adaptation of British-Australian author Jane Harper’s follow-up novel replaces the drought-ridden outback with the tropical rainforests of the Victorian mountain regions – dripping ferns, fruit bats overhead, mud sticking to boots. But even a change of setting is not enough to turn it into a tale worth revisiting. The film falls straight into the traps laid out by its predecessor, becoming a solemn, atmospheric work with underwhelming twists and turns.
Force of Nature opens with a group of dishevelled women who emerge from the wilderness, clearly relieved when they spot help in the distance. This is a new story unrelated to the small-town murder mystery of The Dry, except that its central character connects the two films: Aaron Falk (Eric Bana), an agent of the Federal Police who finds himself, yet again, intervening in a local police investigation. This time, it’s a search and rescue mission for Alice Russell (Anna Torv), who became separated from her colleagues – the women who emerge from the wilderness – while embarking on a corporate retreat. In a flashback, Falk’s hands-on involvement in the case reveals itself to be deeper than mere coincidence. He and his partner, Carmen Cooper (Jacqueline Mackenzie), were using Alice as a whistle-blower to expose her boss’s money-laundering schemes. In an early scene, Falk threatens Alice outside the gates of her daughter’s private school, pressuring her to leak the incriminating files. Otherwise the immunity for her own financial discrepancies will be removed.
As Falk deals with the guilt arising from his conduct towards Alice before her disappearance, he must also probe the question of whether her missing status is linked to the very crimes she was planning to expose. Structurally, Force of Nature doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and it echoes The Dry’s presentation of its central mystery, leaving us to fathom the gaps between the different timelines. In the sequel, there are three timelines: the present day, as Falk tries to piece together the full picture of the crime against a backdrop of Alice’s uncertain fate and an imminent storm; past events leading up to Alice’s separation from the group; and memories of Falk and his parents traversing the same forests when he was a child.
There is a terrifying beauty in the thick greenery and fast-flowing waterfalls. With a sensory tactility, director Robert Connelly (who directed the first film) brings the textures of the Australian landscape alive once again. Paired with Andrew Commis’s cinematography and Tara Webb’s evocative sound design, this gives the film a grandeur which envelops the screen and complements the panic that these women experience, lost in such an expanse. We see the troubling set-up of the ‘team-building’ exercise between Alice, her manager, Jill (Deborra-Lee Furness), colleague Lauren (Robin McLeavy), and their younger employees, sisters Bree (Sisi Stringer) and Beth (Lucy Ansell). There are clues as to how Alice became estranged from them. There’s Jill, who suspects Alice of having an affair with her slimy husband and Alice’s boss-at-large, Daniel (Richard Roxburgh); Lauren, who still harbours ill feelings towards Alice after an incident at their children’s school; and Alice’s unexplained resentment of Bree.
There are no phones or emergency communication when Beth, the most sweet-natured of the bunch, leads the team astray into the obscure tracks of the forest. With no maps, meagre food and water, and the discovery of an abandoned refuge with a dog’s grave in front of it, this feels like the set-up of a horror film awaiting to happen. Connolly’s direction makes it seem suffocating; he creates an uncomfortable, suspenseful edge in the group’s bubbling tensions and historical grudges. But the script, co-written by Connolly and Harper, is less successful in getting to the heart of the angsty female antagonism, especially when that very anger and fear turn into bitter arguments and violent tussles. The dialogue switches between one-note heated confrontations and flying accusations between the headstrong women. There is little nuance or growth in their relationships. This makes it all the harder to root for any of them – even in their desperate plight to escape their environment, and an another.
Instead of being an entertaining page-turning mystery, Force of Nature spends much of its time trying to be a gritty drama. The endlessly moody atmosphere strips it of any moments of lightness and renders even its meatier reveals anti-climatic. There is also a bizarre need for the film to impose moral judgments on the characters, as when Falk questions the cost of his and Carmen’s pursuit in using Alice as their secret informant, to which Carmen, who barely appears in the film, abruptly says that it is all ‘worth it’. Despite these shortcomings, Torv does her best to inject vulnerability into her strong-willed character, and Stringer’s Bree charms with a fierce and protective streak for her sister.
Ultimately, the film can’t shake off the weight of its unsmiling, earnest police protagonist. Bana is intense and steely-eyed, but even his charisma isn’t enough to save an undercooked storyline surrounding his personal link to the crime. The Dry saw Falk revisit painful aspects of his past in his home town and an adolescent friendship with the perpetrator of a horrific crime. In the sequel, flashbacks evoke Falk’s recollections of time spent with his parents in the rainforests, before anpother disaster struck. It is touching to see the young Falk and his father, Eric (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor) united in their despair, but the contrived parallels between his mother and Alice’s fates don’t reach the same emotional heights of the first film. This might explain Falk’s heroism complex and his blind determination to locate Alice, but the references to a series of murders from his childhood years are too murky for us to understand their relation to the present timeline.
Sequels rarely improve on the original works. Force of Nature’s uninspired attempt to spin new life into an Australian box-office hit throws into question why this film was necessary at all. At the end of the film, Falk stares into the distance and makes a grand statement that ‘nature holds us to account’. That’s what we’re left with: another sweeping drone shot of the topography, and a brooding agent with nothing more to give.
Force of Nature: The Dry 2 (Roadshow Entertainment) is released nationally 8 February 2024.