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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

The Forest  (2016)
2 Stars
Directed by Jason Zada.
Cast: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Eoin Macken, Rina Takasaki, Noriko Sakura, Yûho Yamashita, Akiko Iwase, Ibuki Kaneda, Nadja Mazalica, Terry Diab.
2016 – 94 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content and images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, January 7, 2016.
For a film hinging so heavily upon nightmarescapes and psychological games of ambiguity, "The Forest" falls victim to simply being too literal. The legends surrounding Japan's notorious Aokigahara Forest—a wood sitting at the foot of Mt. Fuji where a striking number of people go to take their own lives—have been born, unfortunately, from truth. It is a haunting real-life location of anguish and ruin ripe for exploration in a cinematic context, but screenwriters Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai and debuting director Jason Zada (co-writer of 2014's "The Houses October Built") are only concerned with giving an elementary-level explanation before taking off in questionably exploitative directions. "The Forest" is sheathed in premonitory mood, yet doesn't believe in itself enough to not go time and again for obligatory jump scares over something deeper and more lastingly suggestive.

When identical twin sister Jess (Natalie Dormer)—working as a schoolteacher in Tokyo—goes missing, U.S.-based Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) wastes no time packing her bags and heading to Japan. Knowing only that Jess was last seen entering Aokigahara, Sara finds herself accompanying local guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) and journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney) on their hike through the foreboding sea of trees. Despite the area earning the nickname "Suicide Forest," Sara is adamant her sibling is still alive. It is an intuition she is even more sure of when they come upon her tent—a sign of indecision over whether or not to go on living. When Sara insists on staying overnight, she and Aiden are left alone in a place Michi warns can dangerously play with one's mind. It is a risk she is willing to take, but one she is not quite prepared to face.

"The Forest" has all the necessary ingredients for a satisfyingly spooky horror show, but stumbles on its delivery. While there are a few evocative images and tense moments, particularly as Sara moves closer to learning the truth about her parents' deaths when she was a child, Jason Zada doesn't trust in his own strength as a filmmaker. In lieu of subtle allusion and having faith in his audience's ability to fill in the blanks with all things terrifying and humanely devastating, he spells out every last turn of the plot. Establishing Sara's personal sorrow not through careful observation but through people blatantly stating they sense sadness in her heart, he also misses the mark on seriously delving into his protagonist's inner demons. What is left are a whole lot of ghostly faces screaming and pouncing toward the camera.

"The Forest" holds a rough yet handsome aesthetic, with cinematographer Mattias Troelstrup exhibiting an ace understanding of how to shoot lonesome rural roads and shadowy wooded surroundings. Sara's alienation in this foreign land cannot match the potency of 2003's "Lost in Translation" or even 2004's "The Grudge," but it still gives the story an added layer of mystery even as all else falls too neatly into place. Her lead character may be far from stable, but Natalie Dormer (2015's "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2") is a reliable constant; her performance is arguably more complex than what the screenplay offers her. As a man unconvincingly set up to have questionable intentions, Taylor Kinney (2014's "The Other Woman") does all he can to find the reality in Aiden's thankless trajectory. Alas, just because the film is intermittently involving and, by the end, not as predictable as one might assume doesn't mean it is satisfying; the note it chooses to close on is especially deflating and nothing if not a wasted opportunity for emotional resonance over lazy, faux-hip genre derivatives. "The Forest" is a pastiche of incongruities, a supernatural thriller opting for cheap, fleeting scare tactics over what it really wants to be but doesn't have the courage with which to commit: a graceful, shiver-inducing allegory on depression, loss and the great unknown.
© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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