The Forest (2016) review
The Forest opens with a modicum of promise, then proceeds to repeatedly fall flat. An aggregate of genre clichés and cheap scares amounts to a completely forgettable flick lacking a little bit of everything. Convoluted psychological drama does its best to lift this film above the meager winter box-office expectations set before it, but contrived plot points and ham-fisted exhibition, among many other things, chop down any chance of The Forest being entertaining or thought provoking.
When Sara (Natalie Dormer), a young American woman, learns her twin sister Jess (also Dormer), who has a history of mental illness, has gone missing inside Aokigahara—morbidly referred to as “Suicide Forest”—at the base of Mount Fuji, she travels to Japan in hopes of finding her. As luck would have it, Sara meets Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a magazine reporter, who just happens to be joining a park guide the next day, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), as he makes his rounds through the forest in search of bodies and any afflicted visitors who may be considering suicide. In spite of being repeatedly reminded of the improbability of Jess’s survival, and of the Aokigahara’s deadly powers of influence, Sara decides to trust her “twin sense” that her sister is alive and enters the forest with Aiden and Michi. When the group discovers Jess’s campsite, Sara and Aiden insist on waiting for her to return, but Michi refuses to stay past dusk and leaves the park without them. Soon after, a series of generic supernatural events occur as the film stumbles toward an unexceptional conclusion.
Aokigahara’s very real long-running history of death has made The Forest’s setting highly contentious among crowds who argue that the exploitation of the forest’s history is disrespectful and in poor taste. Poor taste or not, the forest offers maximum potential for the telling of a genuinely disturbing story. Regrettably, Director Jason Zada and Writers Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai wasted almost every bit of that potential by producing an effortless story that feels wooden and rushed, turning the legendary Suicide Forest into a low-grade haunted funhouse.
There’s a hint of a sad backstory, which could have been the film’s saving grace, but most of the details are revealed through clumsy exhibition, including flashbacks and Sara’s recounting of her family’s troubled past. Dormer—revered for her portrayal of Margaery Tyrell on HBO’s Game of Thrones—does her best with the poorly written dialogue for both her characters, but it’s not enough. Instead of an interesting dissection of mental illness and family dynamics, not much materializes out of the stable/troubled twin dichotomy, and we’re left with nothing more than the ubiquitous tale of a stable sibling saving a troubled sibling.
The half-hearted scares help illustrate the unanchored identity of this film by carelessly jumping between spirit-induced hallucinations and actual threats. Each overused jump scare, almost always involving some sort of a shrieking, computer-generated ghoul, feels more forced than the previous, leading to more eye rolling than feelings of dread.
This film mishandles plenty of opportunities to tell a compelling story, but perhaps the most egregious example is the far-too-early exit of Michi, the only character with in-depth knowledge about the forest. This was a golden opportunity to show some respectful insight regarding the real history of the forest, but that opportunity was carelessly excused from the film. Even when Michi is still involved in the story, the film refuses to use him to create empathy for the actual people who have died in the forest. Michi comes across a man who seems to be contemplating suicide, but the camera’s attention stays on the American woman and her problem, leaving the large-scale issue of troubling Japanese suicide rates and its relation to the ghastly setting as an afterthought in the background.