Notes from a screening of The Forest, scribbled in the dark spaces of a movie theater in San Francisco.
Sisyphean struggle to stay awake … and I had a triple espresso before I got here, Should have been a 30-minute short, This movie’s script should have been lost in a forest…, Interminable…, When do the characters die/not die, so we can go home?, Really, they went with the twin sister thing and a Goth look for the missing twin?, How big is this forest anyway and why is there only one clear path in and out?, Lack of cell phone service … seriously? Isn’t this a cliché by now?, The Forest, where horror tropes/clichés go to die slow, painful deaths…, Now we’re going with the ‘Is this a dream or real life? bait-and-switch…, Natalie Dormer deserves better and so do we…, Hey, isn’t that the future Mr. Lady Gaga? Indeed, it is., ‘Natalia Dormer’s character has never gone hiking apparently. She’s woefully under-dressed, under-prepared for the elements., So she meets the only white dude in all of Japan and trusts him implicitly? This will end well, no doubt.
But we’re getting far ahead of ourselves. It’s January, widely acknowledged by moviegoers and cinema lovers alike as the cruelest month (sorry, April). With Oscar-bait films relegated to the end of (last) year and December blockbusters (e.g., Star Wars: The Force Awakens) still sucking up multiplex audiences, studios generally forego releasing all but the lowest risk, modestly budgeted films (i.e., horror, comedy) during the month of January. This week we get The Forest. Next week we’ll get 13 Hours, a Michael Bay production, and Ride Along 2, the not unexpected sequel to 2014’s Ride Along (not coincidentally a January release) buddy-comedy starring Kevin Hart and Ice Cube. The Forest doesn’t have anyone of Hart or Cube’s name recognition in the cast, but given its modest budget, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Starring Natalie Dormer, an actress best known to stateside audiences for Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games series, The Forest goes where every horror film has gone before and suffers badly for it.
At least initially, The Forest shows a modicum of ambition, not to mention promise, centering its supernatural premise on Dormer’s character, Sara, as she leaves her relatively comfortable life and marriage in the states behind to find her now missing sister, Jess, in Japan. Sara and Jess are twins (talk about a cost-savings move, one actress, two roles, one salary), the kind of twins who apparently have an empathic, possibly telepathic connection. While Sara has chosen a stable bourgeois life, complete with an adoring husband, Jess has bounced around from job to job, from one bad life choice to another, finally settling for a job in Japan teaching English. The Forest’s credited screenwriters, Nick Antosca, Sara Cornwell, and Ben Ketai throw in the obligatory shared family trauma, an event Jess witnessed firsthand scarring her for life, but Sara mercifully didn’t.
The shared family trauma and Sara’s partial recovery places The Forest firmly in psychological horror territory, but the script stays at a surface-deep level, trading off any insights it might have on the subject matter for the usual grab-bag of cheap shocks and equally cheap scares (as usual, both are accompanied by shrieking violins and a children’s choir of some sort) before the obligatory twist ending that isn’t a twist at all, in part because it’s telegraphed early on, but largely because Dormer’s underdeveloped character doesn’t generate anything except a marginal, tangential relationship with the audience, making whatever fate she faces in the titular forest, the Aokigahara Forest that borders Mt. Fuji known both as the “Suicide Forest” and the “Sea of Trees,” the former for self-explanatory reasons, the latter because of the dense, tightly packed trees that make getting lost within the confines of the forest a virtual certainty for anyone that strays off the preferred path (there’s a clumsy metaphor there too in case you’re looking for one).
Along the way, Sara encounters the usual culture shocks tinged with xenophobia and a mild case of racism (the Japanese are both odd to Sara and slightly more superstitious than expected for a modern, industrialized country) and a potential helper and savior in Aiden (Taylor Kinney, the aforementioned future Mr. Lady Gaga), a travel writer who not only speaks Japanese, a must for the non-Japanese-speaking Sara, but who’s also planning an unsanctioned trip into the Forbidden Forest with the aid and assistance of Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a travel guide who specializes in the forest. Sara hopes to find her sister in the forest, the last place where she was seen alive. Given the time that’s passed, it seems Jess is still alive, but Sara’s ESP says otherwise. She’s utterly convinced Jess is still alive. But as Michi repeatedly warns Sara (and us), the forest has a tendency to play tricks on trekkers, especially trekkers who are “sad” (“sad” in the clinically depressed sense), setting up a potential psychological breakdown for the not quite all there Sara.
It’s all far less than the sum of its cliché-ridden parts. From the get-go, we’re primed for The Forest veering between the real, objective world and a hallucinogenic dream state (Sara’s), a bait-and-switch that grows tiresome almost immediately. At practically every stop, Sara seems unprepared for what follows, a not so neat way of jamming exposition about Japan, the forest, and demons/ghosts (among other things). By the time Sara makes the ill-fated decision to remain in the forest overnight with barely any supplies and a light, cotton hoodie, we’ve moved irrevocably into idiot plotting territory. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to feel sympathetic, let alone empathetic, for a character who makes one bad choice after another, less because she’s objectively dumb (though that might be true), but because the screenwriters couldn’t find any other way to place her in varying degrees of peril. Add to that unevenly, unimaginatively staged set pieces and slow-build, run-time extending pacing by director Jason Zada, making an unimpressive debut, and the result falls far short of the most basic, minimal requirements of the horror genre.