The Dry 2’ Eric Bana Returns in a Complicated Second Aussie Mystery : ‘Force of Nature

Exchanging dusty outback for verdant rainforest, this sequel to a hit Jane Harper adaptation is scenic, entertaining and overstuffed

Published Time: 09.05.2024 - 16:31:35 Modified Time: 09.05.2024 - 16:31:35

Exchanging dusty outback for verdant rainforest, this sequel to a hit Jane Harper adaptation is scenic, entertaining and overstuffed. 

After getting through the reopened old wounds and fresh corpses of “The Dry” in his dusty outback hometown, Eric Bana’s Federal Agent Aaron Falk certainly deserved a change of scenery. He gets one in woodsy “Force of Nature: The Dry 2,” though naturally the second feature adapted by director Robert Connolly from Jane Harper’s print mystery series soon finds him equally knee-deep in troublesome sleuthing. This sequel to one of Australia’s biggest homegrown hits reprises much of its page-turning plottiness — as well as a straining for emotional depth that proves elusive. IFC is releasing to U.S. theaters and home formats on May 10.

Once again, and perhaps a little too neatly, a case forces Falk to revisit the tragedies of his own past. In the prior film, a childhood friend’s funeral set him to investigating its cause, an effort which soon exposed disturbing links to his own girlfriend’s suspicious death two decades earlier. That tale unfolded in a tricky narrative structure which constantly intercut between the two time periods.

“Force of Nature” goes even further in that direction from the start, alternating between three temporal threads. The present-tense one follows Falk and colleague Carmen Cooper’s (Jacqueline McKenzie) official inquiry into a women’s backpacking trip that one participant disappeared from. Then there’s the recap of what actually happened on that trip, from the hikers’ perspective. Finally, we get distant-past flashbacks from Falk’s own memory — as a child (Archie Thomson), he’d accompanied his parents (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor, Ash Ricardo) on an outing to this same hilly Victoria rainforest, to equally fateful results.

The women’s trek was intended as a corporate team-building exercise. But when we see them stumble out of the woods at the start, they are a distraught mess, with one party bitten by a venomous spider, another vanished entirely. It soon emerges that imperious executive Jill (Deborra-Lee Furness) had assembled this group of five precisely because they’d all been flagged as personnel problems — and that everybody had issues with unpleasant Alice (Anna Torv), who happens to be the missing person. She was no favorite of sibling employees Beth (Sisi Stringer) and Bree (Lucy Ansell), while timorous Lauren (Robin McLeavy) had not only been pushed around by Alice, but the same bullying dynamic got replicated between their teenage daughters at a private school.

Only the Feds know that Alice’s embezzlement of company funds had put them at their mercy, facing jail if she didn’t agree to surreptitiously gather evidence of the investment firm’s involvement in international money-laundering. Did Jill and her even more smirkingly superior spouse Daniel (Richard Roxburgh) suspect that betrayal? Was he having an affair with Alice? When the women lost their way (and their map) in the forest, a crisis that further dissolves any “team spirit,” were some bad decisions made deliberately? As they and the Feds hash out -

what happened at a lodge afterward, it’s unknown whether Alice is still out there somewhere alive. If not, did she suffer some solo accident in treacherous terrain, or was she killed?

That is quite enough intrigue for one movie. But “Force of Nature” just keeps piling on more conflicts and red herrings — including the fact that long ago a serial killer had roamed these very hills, some of his victims’ corpses quite possibly still awaiting discovery in their hidden graves.The effect is too hectic and overstuffed to be affecting as intended, despite the very earnest tenor of Peter Raeburn’s score. “The Dry” was certainly busy with narrative complications, but they all felt more or less unified. Here, between the multiple chronologies and their individual surfeits of melodrama, too much is going on to be fully credible, let alone poignant, as they might’ve been if allowed to play out over the greater breathing space of a miniseries.

The women seem so ill-equipped to deal with the wilderness (or each other), we can’t swallow that they would have had a potentially hazardous, guide-free “executive adventure” chosen by their presumably lawsuit-wary company in the first place. And while Bana gets a lot of screentime, Falk feels irrelevant to this story — never mind the whopping coincidence of his murky familial tragedy in the same locale. (Faring far worse in that regard, however, is McKenzie, whose character could be eliminated with hardly any impact.)

Still, despite those flaws of storytelling logic and compression, “Force of Nature”’s convoluted mysteries keep us involved if not wholly persuaded. The actors are amply equipped to lend their roles whatever dimensionality they can, though it’s a bit off-putting that so few of those figures ultimately command much sympathy. Unconcerned with that is Roxburgh, who steals his few scenes as a horribly consummate example of what Falk calls (to his face) a “white-collar crime prick.”

While the first film’s effective but rather plain, workmanlike execution could’ve used a more stylish approach to heighten its classic nasty-outback-town atmospherics, this sequel reps an improvement at least in visual terms. Set primarily in the fictitious “Giralang Ranges,” it deploys no end of fern-covered scenic splendors from several Victoria parklands in the widescreen cinematography by Andrew Commis (“Blueback,” “High Ground,” “Babyteeth”). Doubtless more than a few backpackers will be tempted to seek those sites out off-screen … even if the film’s protagonists provide a model for everything not to do on the trail.

‘Force of Nature: The Dry 2’: Eric Bana Returns in a Complicated Second Aussie Mystery

Reviewed online, May 5, 2024. MPA Rating: R. Running time: 112 MIN.

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