Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Force of Nature: The Dry 2’ Meanders Through Mystery

Director: Robert Connolly
Writers: Robert Connolly, Jane Harper
Stars: Eric Bana, Anna Torv, Jacqueline McKenzie, Deborra-Lee Furness, Robin McLeavy, Sisi Stringer, Richard Roxburgh

Synopsis: Five women participate in a hiking retreat but only four come out the other side. Federal agents Aaron Falk and Carmen Cooper head into the mountains hoping to find their informant still alive.

The huge Australian box office success of Robert Connolly’s The Dry is, to excuse the pun, due to optimal clear sky conditions. The primary reason it was a money maker for Screen Australia was timing. Australia was in between various COVID lockdowns. Many major overseas releases had been rescheduled. It was based on Jane Harper’s bestselling novel which spoke to the impact of climate change on a rural community after the in real life Australia had suffered devastating bushfires in 2019. And finally, it starred one of Australia’s most bankable and likeable stars, Eric Bana as the detective Aaron Falk.

Prefacing why The Dry was a homegrown hit is not devaluing the film which is a solid piece of Outback Noir (sometimes termed “yeah, noir” based on idiomatic Australian language usage). 

It followed a familiar formula. Big city detective returns to hometown to attend a funeral and gets caught up in what could be related cases. One coming straight from his guilt ridden past. With two timelines working through the film, Falk as a teenager when his girlfriend drowned in a local swimming hole, and Falk as an adult, when, due to drought, the entire riverbed is dry, and the small farming community is a tinderbox waiting to ignite.

The setting of rural Victoria did as much storytelling as Falk did detecting. Unravelling his past and the present of the town he left behind. The psychological state of a mostly office bound Federal police detective working in financial crime needs to have something to anchor it. Remorse and redemption were Falk’s motivations.

Cut to 2024 and a strike which delayed the Australian release of Force of Nature: The Dry 2 and we are witnessing a perfect storm of why the film is not going to garner as much attention. Before one even looks at the quality of the film, which in no manner matches the first, there are too many other movies it’s up against. People are investing their attention in potential major awards contenders.

Context aside, Force of Nature: The Dry 2  is simply not as compelling nor competent as its predecessor. Falk’s role in Harper’s novel is functional, not particularly personal. He’s there to find an asset he’s been pushing to help bring down a corporate money laundering scheme.

Aaron Falk is back in his high-rise office in Melbourne. He receives a distressed call from Alice Russell (Anna Torv) who is acting as his informant against BaileyTennants, a conglomerate run by Jill Bailey (Deborra-Lee Furness) and her sneeringly arrogant husband Dan (Richard Roxburgh). The company has been using charitable donations to clean money from organized crime.

A corporate retreat for BaileyTennants employees in the Giralong Ranges (fictional) in the Victorian Alpine region becomes fraught when four of the women hiking through the dense winter forests are found traumatized but alive, but Alice is not with them. No one can genuinely say they know exactly where she is.

Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper (Jacqueline McKenzie) join in the search for Alice as she was carrying vital data taken the morning of the retreat. The local police force doesn’t appreciate the Feds stepping in, especially as they appear to be glorified forensic accounts. It’s up to Falk and Cooper to work out what happened during the hiking trip where the group went missing for days in order to possibly find Alice alive before a storm front sets in.

Time is of the essence for Falk and Cooper as they question the four women who made it back to the luxury accommodations. Jill, younger siblings and new employees Bree and Beth McKenzie (Lucy Ansell and Sisi Stringer), and Alice’s childhood friend and co-worker Lauren Shaw (Robin McLeavy). Before everyone can lawyer up, something that Daniel reminds Falk he might want to consider before questioning his wife and himself; Aaron and Carmen have to get clues as to Alice’s possible whereabouts from four confused and dissembling women with conflicting stories.

By rights, Aaron Falks should be the least interesting character in the mystery. However, Robert Connolly working in conjunction with Jane Harper, realized that one of the biggest draw cards for the franchise is Eric Bana. Interspersed with the present timeline is a thinly excused hunt for the very likely deceased serial killer Martin Kovac who was active in the area years ago. The local copper Sergeant King (Kenneth Radley) is more invested in finding Kovac’s base of operations; a shack where the women sheltered one night, as he is with finding Alice. Relatives of the dead are searching for the bodies of those who were lost.

Connolly and Harper decide this is a good opportunity to make the case a part of Falk’s past. Flashing back to years ago when he, as a child, was hiking with his parents in the same area. A momentary distraction on behalf of Aaron led to both he and his father Erik (Jeremy Lindsay-Taylor) losing sight of Aaron’s mother Jennifer (Ash Ricardo). She vanishes, possibly at the hands of Kovac and Aaron along with Erik searching for her for days.

Four timelines begin to emerge. The present-day search for Alice. The lead up to Alice agreeing to work with Falk and Cooper, and why. Aaron’s childhood, and the most interesting which is what happened during the hike.

Alice more than likely is already dead in the present – something for personal reasons Falk refuses to accept. The audience needs to know what happened over those days where the “Executive Adventures” hike went terribly wrong for the quintet of women so they can find a possible murderer.

According to Jill, Alice was meant to attend the team building exercise because she was a workplace bully. Something both Beth and Bree can attest to. Lauren seems so deeply disconnected and traumatized that she just stands atop a waterfall staring into the distance. She defends her friend. After all, Alice got her the job and covered for her when she was making mistakes during her divorce. Their daughters Margot (Ingrid Torelli) and Rebecca (Matilda May Pawsey) attend the same exclusive Grammar school. 

“Executive Adventures” tour guide and organiser Ian Chase (Tony Briggs) explains that everything was business as usual when he sent the five out. They had everything they needed for their hike. Supplies were set out. They had a map and compass. They made it to the first checkpoint where they were greeted with luxury hampers and drinks. Plus, the men from BaileyTennants who were doing their own version of the hike and met up with them on the first evening.

The theme, which should revolve around five women going into feral survival mode akin to Lord of the Flies, gets watered down to a “a bunch of incremental bad decisions led them to get lost,” both in the past and present. As the curtain is pulled back on what occurred, the focus is on decisions each woman makes. Going down the wrong path by presuming they are reading the map correctly, only to wind up lost. Jill berates Alice for being too harsh on Bree who was guiding them and tells her it’s symptomatic of her bullying. The confrontation leads to more mistakes happening. The map is lost. Lauren almost drowns. Beth and Bree start to distrust each other due to Beth’s past as an addict. Jill has presumed Alice is having an affair with Dan. Lauren remains mostly passive until she realizes Alice not only has a phone, but she’s planning on abandoning them all.  Yet somewhere in all of that there is a strange kumbaya moment where they sit and talk about stars, life, and love.

Jill with her fake thick and fashionable brows is the kind of woman for whom a lack of luxury is anathema. Lauren simply drifts and tries unsuccessfully to be a peacemaker. No one really cares what she thinks. The siblings aren’t strangers to difficult situations; but they’ve never been lost in a seemingly endless forest where roots can trip you, the ground is uneven, the canopy of trees rarely allows light, and it’s sodden and freezing. Only Alice seems to have a plan and that’s “my way or the highway.”

The sheen of civility is what has kept BaileyTennants from being fully investigated before. The company’s multiple donations to charitable funds is what makes them near untouchable. The parallel is that civility only works in controlled environments. There’s nothing controlled about “the force of nature that reveals us all,” when you are lost in a forest and no one is searching for you.

There is precious little to engage with beyond Andrew Commis’ cinematography of the region and a smattering of effective set pieces. Mostly this comes down to the uneven drip feeding of essential information to make the plot seem plausibly tense. 

Aaron Falk already had his trauma, redemption, and hero moments in The Dry. Rehashing the same ground for Force of Nature is a mistake. No one really wondered all that much about Jennifer Falk, so it wasn’t necessary to insert her into the place specific backstory. 

It is okay for the film to admit Aaron’s just a serious, somewhat damaged man with no outside life and a sense of empathy. It isn’t necessary to relegate his partner Carmen to a “We will get it no matter who it hurts, they’re all guilty of something” foil to make Falk more human. He doesn’t have to be the film’s most righteous feminist. Women can, and do, behave badly to each other. Psychological bullying is a specialty. Violence can happen between the “girls and ladies.” Privilege and social class aren’t erased by “sisterhood.”

What Force of Nature excels at is showing another side of the Australian landscape. Already the outback noir has its definitive detective in Jay Swan created by Ivan Sen. Ray Lawrence (Jindabyne) and Cate Shortland (Somersault) gave us versions of the Snowy Mountains. We have seen beaches and tropical locations more times than it is possible to list. But the inherently eerie, and at times deeply dangerous, winter forest doesn’t often get a big budget film to showcase it. 

Force of Nature: The Dry 2 mostly limps along as a mystery because it doesn’t decide where the audience should look. Usually, some obfuscation is what makes a mystery compelling. A few red herrings, and people with enough motive to want someone gone. Instead, the audience is given a stoic sad sack “hero” detective who resembles supermarket white bread. It’s a shame because Eric Bana is generally a fantastic actor. So are two Australian screen icons Jacqueline McKenzie and Deborra-Lee Furness. Richard Roxburgh’s performance seems to be just “We need a slightly extended cameo by a big name who can do menacing.” At least Anna Torv is given some gristle to chew and she dominates every scene she’s in with her changeable demeanour. It is also good to see Robin McLeavy on the big screen again after her breakout performance in Tasmanian horror comedy The Loved Ones from 2009. Sisi Stringer is a cast stand out. Her twitchy, guilt ridden Beth is the best performance outside of Torv’s.

If the thematic idea of the film is that the force of nature forces us to reveal our true natures is to work, then more time is needed to be given to the people central to the mystery. Force of Nature: The Dry 2 jettisons character backgrounds to the point where the audience is working overtime to infer meaning and proper motivation. It renders the work featureless and lacking teeth. Aaron Falk is neither the hero the film needs, nor deserves because there aren’t clearly enough defined villains except corrupt capitalism and keeping up appearances. A more apropos title would be Sodden: The Dry 2.

Grade: C

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