Studio: Gramercy Pictures
Director: Jason Zada
Writer: Ben Ketai, Sarah Cornwell, Nick Antosca
Producer: Tory Metzger, David S. Goyer, David Linde
Stars: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Eoin Macken, Rina Takasaki
A young woman searches for her missing twin sister in a haunted Japanese forest notorious for suicide deaths.
Japan’s Aokigahara Forest should be known for its lush greenery, popular ice caves, and scenic beauty of nearby Mount Fuji. Instead, legends of yurei and a tragic association with scores of suicides have earned it the nickname “Suicide Forest.”
That’s why when young American teacher Jess goes missing among the trees, police assume death by her own hand. Twin sister Sara doesn’t believe it. A family tragedy gave Jess a deep emotional scar from which she never fully healed, but the unbreakable bond of an identical sibling tells Sara something other than suicide has Jess in its grip. With help from a journalist met by seeming chance, Sara journeys to Japan to uncover the forest’s possibly supernatural secret and reveal the truth behind her sister’s mysterious disappearance.
“The Forest” is, in a word, boring. Every character, every scene, every setup for a scare drowns in an ocean of commonplace convention, watering down everything until any flavor other than ordinary washes away. In what can only be rationalized as a misfired strategy for lowest common denominator appeal, the shooting script sees its spine broken from the strain of homogenizing content to be as patently pedestrian as possible.
Star Natalie Dormer is known for her role on “Game of Thrones,” where she plays a complicated royal who is often sly, sardonic, charming, cunning, calculating, and seductive, yet occasionally uncertain, pragmatic, fearful, even subservient. Good luck finding even one adjective fit for describing Dormer’s character in “The Forest.”
Sara arrives in Japan one minute into the movie. Fleeting flashbacks remembered while cabbing to her hotel then fill in bare minimum backstory, providing context for the plot, yet forgetting to fully form the people.
Jess and Sara’s relationship is established easily enough. They have the type of sweet cinema sister bond satisfied with the simplicity of playfully throwing laundry at one another while giggling. It’s easy to believe Dormer as two separate women. Makeup and wardrobe do the work of visually demarcating Jess with a slight outsider punk look while Dormer fulfills it via a distinguishably different edge in her performance.
Despite exponentially more time on screen, Sara isn’t afforded an even opportunity to develop definable characteristics. Virtually the only thing learned about her is how she reacts to sudden jump scares. Other than the driving desire to find her sister, how Sara feels about anything else is more of a mystery than Aokigahara Forest. She dresses smartly and sips wine at a dinner party, so maybe she is an upper class society type. Except she appears outmatched by the sight of live shrimp while dining on sushi, so perhaps she isn’t that cultured after all. Who knows who she is, or who “The Forest” wants her to be.
Perhaps her fiancé Rob, a character who the story has as much use for as a platypus does for underpants, can offer insight. At least, I think Rob is her fiancé. He and Sara have rings on their fingers, though Sara’s is diamond-less. Presumably they are engaged. Perhaps they are already married. “The Forest” isn’t clear about details like this, although it doesn’t matter. Rob could be written as Jess and Sara’s brother, or written out entirely, and everything important to the plot would remain unchanged, a trait common with most elements in the movie.
Her ambiguous relationship with Rob immediately extinguishes any chemistry between Sara and Aiden, the man she meets in a Tokyo bar who takes an interest in Sara’s personal quest and becomes one of two hands-on guides through the forest. Is there trouble at home that has her bonding over beers with another expatriate, or is this just friendly convo between two fellow strangers in a strange land? Is romantic tension even intended here? If so, how is the audience meant to digest it when nothing is known about what Rob means to Sara and thus, how Aiden complicates that picture? Empty definition in every relationship sucks out all emotional drama, right up through a climactic embrace that is particularly anti-climactic.
Credited to three independent screenwriters, each apparently Frankensteining new work onto an old frame existing in inherited drafts, “The Forest” appears to be a case of retooling to a point where whatever anyone originally intended is no longer recognizable. What is evident is that someone realized the dull affair taking shape and insisted on inserting dream sequence gotchas, homeless men banging on car windows, and assorted cheap boos sticking out like sore thumbs desperate to open eyelids. When the climax closes on a cut to black after dashing into a ghost’s face, a white flag raises all the way up to signal total abandonment of substantive fright and originality.
It is an easy sell to spend 90 minutes with Natalie Dormer as the guide through a haunted foreign forest. But by shackling her at the wrist to a flat script with a plateaued plotline, the advantage of casting an engaging actress is entirely useless. “The Forest” is so consumed with being safe, PG-13 multiplex filler that it is by consequence unremarkable.
Review Score: 35