Force of Nature: The Dry 2
Eric Bana is excellent again as Aaron Falk, reteaming with filmmaker Robert Connolly to bring Jane Harper's second novel about the detective to the screen.
February 06, 2024
"Nature holds us all to account" is one of Force of Nature: The Dry 2's trailer-friendly lines. Even for those who didn't see the film's sneak peeks in the months between its arrival and the feature's release — a period stretched by Hollywood's 2023 strikes, pushing the picture's date with cinemas from August to February 2024 — it sounds primed for promo snippets when it's uttered in the movie itself. But this Australian detective franchise has earned the right to occasionally be that blunt and loaded with telling importance in its dialogue. And, it makes it work. In 2021's The Dry and here, in a flick that could've been called The Wet thanks to its drenched forest setting, the Aaron Falk saga uses its surroundings to mirror its emotional landscape. Nature holds its characters to account not just in a narrative sense, but by reflecting what they're feeling with astute specificity — so much so that the parched Victorian wheatbelt in the initial movie and the saturated greenery in Force of Nature are as much extensions of the series' on-screen figures as they are stunning backdrops.
Chief among this page-to-film realm's players is Falk, the federal police officer that Eric Bana and his Blueback director Robert Connolly treat like terrain to trek through and traverse. His stare has its own cliffs and gorges. His life upholding the law and beyond has its peaks and valleys as well. In The Dry, it was evident that the yellowed, drought-stricken fields that monopolised the frame said plenty about how much Falk and everyone around him was holding back. In Force of Nature, all the damp of the fictional Giralang mountains — Victoria's Otways, Dandenong Ranges and Yarra Valley IRL — speaks volumes about what's streaming through the movie's characters inside. Cinematography is one of this franchise's strengths, and that Andrew Commis (Nude Tuesday) lenses the second picture's location just as evocatively and meticulously as Stefan Duscio (Shantaram) did the first is crucial: these features make their audience see every detail that envelops Falk and company, and therefore constantly spy the parallels between their environs and their inner turmoil.
As adapted from author Jane Harper's bestselling books, the two Falk films so far understand one of the basic aspects of being human that's also rarely grasped so convincingly: that there's no escaping the fact that who we are and what we've experienced colours how we see what's in front of us. As Connolly keeps exploring both as a director and a screenwriter — he penned Force of Nature's script solo — this truth rings accurate whether a person has spent decades trying to ignore something or if they're drawn into territory linked to a matter that's always cascading in their heart and mind. The latter is the second flick's scenario, with Falk on a missing-person investigation in a place that connects to his history. The Dry used a similar setup, but it only comes across as neat and repetitive if you can't see how closely art is aping life and how everyone inherently views the world.
New locale, scenery, weather conditions, colour palette, case, involved parties and reasons that Falk is pondering his past: they're among Force of Nature's departures from its predecessor. Same protagonist, flashback-heavy structure, emotional approach, revealing use of topography, star, filmmaker: so goes the returning elements. This is a movie that combines new shoots with old foliage, then, and compellingly. The Dry was a solid twisty Aussie mystery aided by Bana at his best in the lead and thematically meaningful imagery, as Force of Nature is now. Its most-unsuccessful part is its title, blatantly stressing the relationship between the features as if viewers wouldn't pick it anyway. (If Harper's third and final Falk book gets the cinematic treatment as well, which likely depends on how well Force of Nature backs up The Dry's $20-million-plus in Aussie box-office takings, presumably that picture will be clunkily dubbed Exiles: The Dry 3.)
Sodden ranges beckon one of Australia's rare whodunnit sagas due to a corporate hiking retreat for the Melbourne-based Bailey Tenants, where Alice Russell (Anna Torv, The Last of Us) works. After setting off with just her boss Jill (Deborra-Lee Furness, Blessed) and three colleagues — Lauren (Robin McLeavy, Homeland), who has a daughter (debutant Matilda May Pawsey) the same age as her own (Ingrid Torelli, Five Bedrooms); and sisters Beth (Sisi Stringer, Mortal Kombat) and Bree (Lucy Ansell, Strife) — for company, plus one map between them and only basic supplies, she isn't with the group when they re-emerge. None of the remaining women have answers about Alice's whereabouts. They've all visibly been through an ordeal. And Alice's absence isn't deeply mourned, as Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper (Jacqueline McKenzie, Ruby's Choice) are soon diving into with the returnees, plus Jill's husband Daniel (Richard Roxburgh, Prosper).
This isn't the detective duo's introduction to Alice. This isn't Falk's first time at this spot, either. So spreads Force of Nature's branches (and so gives the editing a workout, with Alexandre de Franceschi back from The Dry and and Penguin Bloom's Maria Papoutsis joining). The film tracks the search for Alice in the present, what happened leading up to her disappearance, Falk and Cooper's attempts to get her to be a whistleblower against her employer before that, and Falk's childhood (with The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart's Jeremy Lindsay Taylor returning as Erik Falk, his father, and Preacher's Archie Thomson playing the younger Aaron). Force of Nature isn't short on plot — and thankfully it also isn't lacking in weight and texture in Connolly's hands, just as atmosphere, tension and intrigue aren't an issue.
It was a masterstroke to enlist Bana as Falk — a choice that, aided by his fine-tuned mixed of charisma and intensity, continues paying off in his second spin in the part. This is a contemplative performance with gravitas again, including in probing the ethics of his on-screen alter ego's actions. As the headstrong Alice, Torv is equally exceptional, especially as someone who is far from the dutiful informant or likeable potential victim. Indeed, the casting all round is spot on, with Furness dynamite in her first feature beyond voicework in a decade and a half, McLeavy putting in another complicated portrayal in an Aussie movie 15 years after making a helluva debut in The Loved Ones, Roxburgh as excellent at playing cunning as he was in Prosper, and Stringer and Ansell commandingly digging into their sibling characters' layers. Their efforts match the rain in the forest, the unease among the traipsing women and the thrall of this franchise as it grows — because all three keep soaking in.
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