If there is any justice in this world, we’ll get an Aaron Falk mystery every few years in perpetuity. Force of Nature: The Dry 2, written and directed by Robert Connolly and based on the novel by Jane Harper, offers up a brand-new case for viewers and does not require that you’ve seen its engaging predecessor (The Dry). This time the setting is the Giralang Ranges, a fictional rainforest of labyrinthine density (the film itself was shot all over Victoria, Australia). Along with the drastic change in scenery from the first outing (which hewed closer to an outback aesthetic tourists would expect), there’s been an expansion of production value. As Falk closes in on the identity of the killer, a violent storm closes in. This time there are more characters, more plot, and more conflicting motivations.

The plot revolves around a corporate retreat gone bad. Five women (Anna Torv, Deborra-lee Furness, Robin McLeavy, Sisi Stringer, Lucy Ansell) went out on a team-building hiking-camping trip. Only four came back. The one missing is Alice Russell (Torv), who also happens to be a whistleblower for the federal police. Specifically Detectives Falk (Eric Bana) and Carmen Cooper (Jacqueline McKenzie). When Falk receives a distress call from Alice that breaks up before he can hear much, he and his partner head to Giralang Ranges to investigate. The region holds a personal trauma for Falk. It’s the wilderness where his mother died on another hike gone wrong many, many years before. It’s credit to Connolly’s direction that the flashbacks to this event play incredibly well throughout. Often the decision to show the past hinders the pace of the central narrative. In both this and The Dry, Falk’s past is interwoven effectively both thematically and visually.

Atmosphere is the standout here. Rarely are location managers and their teams mentioned in reviews; an exception’s to be made for a film wherein location is so vital. Immense credit goes to location coordinator Ilina Lovely, location assistant Riley Nimbs, location scout Andrew Perry, and on-set location manager Rachel Ray. The Dandenong Ranges and Yarra Valley (among other locales) combined to create the Giralang Ranges; the result is truly seamless. The moment those women begin their adventure, nature quite literally swallows them whole. A terrifying alchemy of doom and wonder. It’s an impressive effort from all involved.

There are some dynamic performances here. Anna Torv––superb in the short-lived and much-loved Mindhunter––plays Alice as a thoroughly unlikable sort: brave in her willingness to cooperate with the authorities to reveal illegalities of the company that employs her, but that does not mean she is not a nasty piece of work. The willingness to take that character to edge on either side of noble and ruthless is admirable. Meanwhile, Bana has maybe never been better than he is as Federal Detective Aaron Falk. There is a vacancy to his performance that is arresting. Bana has always been versatile: made famous in Australia as a comedian, then famous everywhere else as an action star, he’s most comfortable with an ache in his bones. His detective, endearingly, takes it all a bit personal. Falk may be a pro, but that’s just the start. The deeper he delves into the current mystery, the fresher the old wounds become.

Connolly continues to grow as a filmmaker, as evidenced in his last three pictures (The Dry, Blueback, and Force of Nature: The Dry 2), all starring Bana. While The Dry may hold greater dramatic weight, Force of Nature is a more complicated affair. More red herrings, more technical proficiency. That this isn’t a bloated, six-episode series sitting on a streamer is such an outlier victory in the year of our lord 2024 that it cannot be overstated. Does a sentence like that suggest this film is being graded on a curve? Yes, it does and yes––it is. In this threatening Age of Content, a well-told yarn can feel like a hidden gem.

Force of Nature: The Dry 2 opens in theaters and digitally on May 10.

Grade: B+

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