There’s no doubt coming off of The Forest that however Natalie Dormer came into being involved with the film, she absolutely deserves better. An attempt at being some level of exotic psychological horror, The Forest is a return to the short-lived trend of inserting good-looking actresses into westernized versions of Japanese horror of the earlier 2000s that introduced audiences to both The Ring and The Grudge. But whereas both of those at least had some creepy visuals to see them through, The Forest simply rings hollow in its cynical story of an American woman lost in a Japanese wilderness.
The film doesn’t do itself any favours, even in its early scenes. Natalie Dormer’s Sara finds out her twin sister Jess has gone missing while in Japan, so she ventures over to try find her. Jess, being the “troubled” one, was last seen going into Aokigahara forest, where she’s presumed dead. The titular forest is no ordinary woods, however – it’s inexplicably prone to people committing suicide while inside, and is said to be haunted by the souls of those who have passed on its soil. Naturally, Sara enlists rugged world-traveller Aiden (Taylor Kinney) and dives straight in, despite local people warning her to the contrary. Yes, it’s all as broad-stroke and as simple as that all sounds.
It’s difficult to find a good place to start with explaining how much is wrong with The Forest. The setting is a place of enormous myth in Japan, and somewhere one would argue shouldn’t be exploited so shamelessly for the purposes of a cheap thrills chiller. Aokigahara forest is ripe for a great movie about suicide and depression, but this film merely reduces it to a bunch of ghosts that haunt wanderers. Not that there isn’t meaning attached to why the forest is how it is, it’s just that meaning is vague and vastly under-stimulated. At times there’s a mystery element underpinning everything, other times it’s just malicious spirits being malicious. The lack of cohesion creates a confusing dissonance in more than one instance that leaves you trying to work out exactly what the lead characters are talking about. This is exacerbated further by a banal attempt to turn Sara into an unreliable narrator in the second half.
Which is perhaps the best summation of The Forest‘s weaknesses: It runs like a checklist of ideas made into a script. Everything is completely superficial. Each act seems to have its own idea of what the evil is, and with that comes its own set of visual cues and aesthetics. Almost every ghost or plot-point is introduced, has a singular scene or two of exposition and is then left where it lay to suffocate while the movie meanders on. It’s bad enough that they made the film without a single Japanese person in production, but the way the genuine tragedy that surrounds the setting is used becomes downright infuriating. Occasionally, something will tie into the broader scheme of mental health, but it’s so drenched in stereotype and willful misunderstanding that it’d have been an improvement to leave it out entirely. The only piece of narrative tissue that manages to stick for the duration is a recurring memory of a traumatic event from Jess and Sara’s childhood. Even this is cheated of any real substance by being discarded for most of the film, only to be remembered in the last act to provide some semblance of a full-circle ending, as if everyone involved knew what they were doing in the first place.
There are a couple of minor victories for The Forest. For one, it did provide a couple of chuckles. Any time a vengeful spirit makes a move is paired with a shrill noise or sudden camera shift to try and create a jump-scare. The actual scare part fails dramatically but the result is gigglesome in the same vain as a well-timed cat vine. There is, too, Natalie Dormer pulling double-duties in some scenes, further proving her abilities as a leading lady. Hopefully her next leading role is more fruitful. Not to be too hard, it is director Jason Zada‘s first feature film, but this is a movie much better left in Aokigahara itself with the vengeful spirits and tormented memories.