Feeling the January-movie blues: “The Forest”

January 9, 2016


Well, it’s January. Know how I can tell (aside from, you know, being cognizant of the date)? It’s because the new releases in the cinema is stuff like The Forest. Yeah, January is when Hollywood basically says to us, “What? You don’t want to rewatch all the great movies we released for the last two months? You can see The Force Awakens for a fifth time, right? No? Well, fuck it. We shot our load, so here’s a ghost movie with a Game of Thrones actor.” And that’s how movies like The Forest get a theatrical release.

So, in The Forest, Natalie Dormer (from the aforementioned Game of Thrones and who the Internet keep telling me how to date) plays the dual roles of twins Jess and Sara Price. The movie begins pretty efficiently with a series of flashbacks scattered amid a cab ride Sara takes through nighttime Tokyo.  This sets up the fact that Sara has come to the Land of the Rising Sun to search for Jess—an English teacher in Tokyo—who has disappeared into the Aokighara forest.

I know, Natalie. You're in "The Forest."

I know, Natalie. You’re in “The Forest.”

Sara soon learns that this development has an ominous overtone, as the Aokighara forest has a long and mournful history. Traditionally, in times of famine, villages would exile the elderly and infirm there to die of exposure. In recent times, it’s become a popular destination for disconsolate Japanese citizens to commit suicide. The implications this has for Jess—who, we’ve learned, is more troubled than the upper middle-class Sara—are troubling to say the least.

Checking into a small hostel at the edge of the forest, Sara meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a journalist who offers his services and those of a guide to the forest to help locate Sara in exchange for the story of Sara’s search. Clearly out of her depth, Sara agrees. From the outset, though, she is warned about going into the forest. The locals tell her that it’s filled with yurei, or vengeful specters. Sara, of course, doesn’t believe this. Well, you know that’s going to turn out.

Yeah, three people to search thousands of acres of forest. That oughta work.

Yeah, three people to search thousands of acres of forest. That oughta work.

Naturally, in short order, Sara and Aiden peel off from their guide and end up lost in the forest together. As night falls, the weird stuff begins to happen, natch. But the takeaway is that Sara is warned by a seeming-lost Japanese schoolgirl (who is not at all a ghost, nope) not to trust Aiden. Suddenly, everything Aiden does seems to hide an ulterior motive.

Yeah, nothing at all suspicious about this.

Yeah, nothing at all suspicious about this.

Over the course of a couple days, Sara finds herself stalked by horrifying visages that toy with her mind, and force her to relive the death of her parents which she seems to have been repressing or at least mentally-editing. Meanwhile, she continues to play a tense game of cat-and-mouse with Aiden, who Sara becomes increasingly convinced killed Jess.

Finally, Sara believes she has found the cabin where Aiden has imprisoned Jess. She kills Aiden and confronts the ghost of her father—who, we learn, killed her mother and them himself. Sara races through the woods to a search party led by her husband, only to discover that they found Jess alive, but that she was tricked into killing herself by ghost dad. Poor Sara, but, hey, there’s a spare, so call it a draw.

Oh sorry. Did I spoil that? Well, now you don’t have to see The Forest. You’re welcome.

Uh...you sure you don't want to maybe use a FLASHLIGHT?!?

Uh…you sure you don’t want to maybe use a FLASHLIGHT?!?

The Forest isn’t a wretched movie, but it is a very dull one. Worse it has a fatal deficit of imagination, which is pretty unforgivable given the subject matter. Aokighara forest is a real place, and the suicides there are a real cultural phenomena in Japan (likely inspiring the garden of death in the novel You Only Live Twice). It’s fertile ground for a horror movie with room to explore themes of guilt and despair. So why didn’t the filmmakers do more with it? The story of Sara and Jess’s parents is so half-assed it doesn’t have any emotional resonance at all.

Additionally, the forest (a forest on Serbia) doesn’t even seem all that spooky or forbidding. How it is you can drain the mystery and menace from endless wilderness I don’t know, but director Jason Zada sure as shit manages it. There’s also nothing particularly scary in it, except for some token creepy ghost that have been a staple of J-horror for 20 years now.

"Boo! Boo?"

“Boo! Boo?”

Dormer does some very good work, and seems to be carrying a weight of genuine sadness that helps make up for the weaknesses in the script, but she’s still left high and dry by a creative team that gave her very little to do. This is too bad, since it wouldn’t haven taken much work to cobble together a story that had her facing some better-defined personal demons.

So, that’s The Forest: a listless, halfhearted offering. What else can we expect form January? God, this month sucks.

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