The Forest's thoughtful concerns are overshadowed by its reliance on cheep thrills
The Forest Gramercy Pictures
Director: Jason Zada
Screenplay: Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai
Starring: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Noriko Sakura, Yûho Yamashita and Eoin Macken
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 33 minutes
January 8, 2016
(out of four)
Jason Zada's The Forest does all it can to cut itself off from any sense of equilibrium, if not reality altogether. It's not enough that its central character is unceremoniously transplanted to an exotic country, but an exotic, insular, whispered-about locale within that country. Even that place - Aokigahara, an infamous "Suicide Forest" at the base of Japan's Mount Fuji - seems to change into a different place altogether, even a supernatural one, once the sun sets each night. And so it goes that Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) finds herself as far removed from the normal world as she could possibly be, as if marooned on a distant jungle planet.
Practically speaking, making the protagonist of a Japan-set story American is more about appealing to U.S. audiences than adding an extra layer of alienation to the premise (after all, we don't have a mythical suicide forest of our own), but that doesn't make the extra layer any less relevant. The notion of getting lost or otherwise displaced is repeated throughout. One character disappears; another has to get deliberately lost to find her. One plane of reality - within it ghosts and figures that may or may not belong there - seems to exist entirely inside another. The plot itself pivots on a long-buried memory.
If nothing else, at least The Forest evinces more thoughtful - or the very least, different - motives than we might expect from a movie about one twin sister trying to rescue the other. We readily anticipate the doubling motifs and the questions of identity. And it's not that such things are absent; they're just kept in the background as the filmmakers concentrate more on place and memory. In fact, the central, titular place seems to be a sort of collective memory palace, as if it absorbs the subconscious of everyone who passes through - both those who commit suicide there and those who don't - as if imposing a penalty for trudging across sacred ground.
This is where the film gets the most use out of the twin conceit, using the sisters' shared memory and "twin telepathy" to actually drive the narrative. Sara marches head-on into Aokigahara, where her sister Jess seems to be communicating with her in some way. Tangibly, she only knows that Jess was last spotted going into the forest, but it was enough to bring Sara halfway across the world to find her. And when she arrives, she feels - knows - that her sister is still alive.
She's been through this before with Jess, apparently the more mercurial, rebellious of the two. Sara - sensible, relatively wealthy, happily married - seems to have made a long-running habit of bailing sis out of trouble. And if Jess really did go into the suicide forest with ill intent, it wouldn't be her first attempt at self-harm. There's a steely determination to Sara's behavior (and Dormer's performance) that indicates not only that she knows what she's doing, but that she half-expected this to happen anyway. She's been here before, she'll be here again.
A question arises, however, about who is actually protecting whom. And from what. Sara has made her way all the way to Japan looking to rescue her troubled sister, but the full story may not quite be so cut-and-dried - a level of confusion exacerbated by the presence of a long-form journalist named Aiden (Taylor Kinney) who is accompanying Sara on her trek and who may or may not have seen/known Jess before her disappearance. Leading those two in their hunt for Jess is Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a local guide who always warns visitors to remain on the forest's official pathway, and to always get out and back into town before it gets dark. (I'll let you guess whether Sara takes those two pieces of advice.)
But despite its ethereal instincts, The Forest gets itself bogged down in the more traditional elements - scary noises, secret motives, characters falling into holes in the ground. The central location and its inhabitants (corporal and spectral both) are cloaked in a certain mythology - the locals speak of it in threatening, hushed tones, the whole surrounding area feels funereal - but the film can't maintain that mythological tone for more than moments at a time. That failure of tone opens up the movie's other problems. Were Zada better able to build on the psychological and atmospheric elements he has in place, the flimsy way the narrative plays out (basically boiling down to little more than the discovery of a buried secret) wouldn't matter as much, if at all.
The Forest is one of two new movies set in the same location, along with Gus Van Sant's upcoming The Sea of Trees. As a setting, Aokigahara is certainly alluring enough. The movie is not without its arresting images, but it's ultimately unable to channel the forest's unique personality into the unnerving dreamlike effect it's looking for.