Directed by Jason Zada.
2016. Rated PG-13, 93 minutes.
I've been told that twins have this thing where one can sense when something is wrong with the other. This is supposedly true even if they are a great distance apart. In the case of Sara and Jess, both played by Natalie Dormer, they are literally on opposite ends of the globe. Sara is in America and gets a phone call notifying her that Jess went missing a few days ago in Japan, where she lives and works. Most disconcerting is that Jess was last seen walking into the Aokigahara Forest. The place is so well known as a location where people go to commit suicide, the police have already presumed Jess dead. Since Sara's Wonder Twin powers are always activated, she feels her sister is still alive and journeys to Japan to find her. Once there, Sara gets all sorts of stern warnings about going into the forest, staying on the path if she does, and how people are driven to suicide. She enlists Aiden (Kinney), the first white dude she meets, they draft a knowledgeable local to be their tour guide, and off they go into the forest in search of Jess. Tour guide dude splits as soon as it threatens to get anywhere near sunset, urging Sara and Aiden to come with him. Sara's having none of this because she's hellbent on finding her sister right now. Rob decides to stay with her. Wouldn't you know it? Things start going bump in the night.
Much like this review, The Forest gets off to a slow start as it sets things up. Every so often, it throws in a random jump scare as if to preview what's to come. It all gets to be somewhat tedious since the movie repeats itself several times in order to drive home the point Sara should not be going into this forest. It doesn't help that each warning is given by a character who fits into one of the well-worn Hollywood Asian stereotypes. First is the wise older woman who is also a shop owner. She's followed by the teenager in full schoolgirl fetish regalia, and lastly, the tour guide, a man with intimate knowledge of the mystical happenings in the eponymous forest. What time is not spent on this is used to develop a relationship of some sorts between Sara and Aiden. It's not a sexual one, though he would clearly like it to be. Sara nor the film, to the credit of both, is interested in that. She has more important things occupying her heart. Besides, we learn she has a husband at the outset of the movie. Truth told, he's nothing more than someone the script needs to eventually show up somewhere, but we know Sara is committed to him and this isn't the type of film devoted to testing her self-control.
This film is about testing Sara's resolve in the face of extreme adversity. We finally get to that when, at long last, the sun has set. Due to some strange occurrences, Sara finds herself alone and at the mercy of the place that seems to know her fears and is making a game out of fraying her nerves. It is at this point the film finally begins to cash in on the atmospherics and mythos it painstakingly built in service of it's true star character, the Aokigahara Forest, itself. Thankfully, nothing so silly as the trees moving and talking happens, but there are lots of nice touches along the way letting us know the place is definitely messing with Sara's head. Along with her, we in the audience are kept busy trying to figure out what is real and what is not. Much of this is handled through the visual spectrum. As in most haunted house horror, the forest standing in for a house, we get some interesting ghouls hanging around. What makes them increasingly effective is they become more dangerous as things move along. From an audible standpoint, the score hits all the hard chords at the appropriate moments. Eventually, the forest seems to be calling our heroine by name. Natalie Dormer makes it all work by becoming a very good scream queen. She spends the latter half of the film in that mode. However, she is not just a damsel in distress. She most certainly tries to take matters in her own hands right from the start, making her an empowered woman, even through her fear.
When the movie shifts into overdrive for what it hopes to be a heart-pounding finale, it gets going too fast for its own good. During this time, things must be explained and resolved, but in an exciting fashion. Exciting, in this case, means lots of things are happening at a much quicker rate than they were previously. Unfortunately, it does them in a manner too typical of the genre, no longer seeming to be its own thing, but a carbon copy of so many movies that came before it. From a narrative standpoint, it gets to be a little confusing, and seems to end rather abruptly. This gives The Forest a roller coaster feeling, but not in a satisfying way. The opening act provides the initial rickety ascent. The second act, clearly the best, provides the thrill of that first drop. The third act tries to send us hurtling into a lightning loop and keep the thrills going, but the ride stalls and can't turn the trick. Then it's over. We make our way to exit knowing only one of the three parts were really good. It's good enough we wonder what could've been.