‘The Forest’ Review | Something Thicket This Way Comes
If you’re ever in the market for a backhanded compliment, you can’t do much better than “Good enough for January.” As in, “The Forest wouldn’t have passed muster at any other time of the year, but it’s good enough for January, when we usually get crap like The Devil Inside and I, Frankenstein instead.”
To be fair, The Forest is not a particularly bad film. It’s classically shot and well acted, and the premise is pretty spooky. At the base of Mount Fuji lies Aokigahara Forest, where an unthinkable number of people go to commit suicide, every single year. Signposts litter the pathways, begging visitors to think of their families. Creepy, right?
So into this “Suicide Forest” walks Sara Price (Natalie Dormer), who has reason to believe that her identical twin sister is already in there, and in dire straits. Enlisting the aid of a local guide (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) and a helpful Australian travel writer (Taylor Kinneh), Sara begins to lose herself – literally and figuratively – in the frightful foliage, and thus begins a descent into the supernatural, or possibly madness, but probably both.
Director Jason Zada has a good eye for eerie angles and disturbing hallucinations (or are they?), but you can’t build much with classy cinematography if the foundation isn’t already there. Sara’s journey may be clear but her starting point is murky. The Forest expects us to be terrified by the doubts and anxieties that drive someone, particularly someone who seems perfectly sane, to thoughts of self-murder. But we spend so little time with Sara outside of the supernatural shrubbery that we never fully understand what she has brought with her except in the broadest possible strokes.
Natalie Dormer has an impressive screen presence, and yet in The Forest she’s expected to illustrate the deteriorating mindset of somebody who might actually want to kill themselves, and she doesn’t have enough to work with. We see the initial childhood trauma that started her down a harrowing road (in an unsettling sequence involving a childhood Viewfinder), but the life she led after that fateful day long, long ago has been left largely blank. A film as psychologically ambitious as The Forest demands nuance and we get only bullet points instead.
It doesn’t help that The Forest strands Sara in the woods with only two strangers to interact with, so that she must spend more time explaining what she’s feeling instead of exploring it. The film tries to milk her alienation in an strange new land with strange new people for paranoia, but instead that only externalizes her anguish to the point where it becomes a plot device, and not a recognizable character trait.
The Forest may not be a successful film but it is a painless one. Then again, that might be one of its biggest problems, since a film about battling your inner demons and potentially losing probably shouldn’t be an effortless time at the multiplex. Yet the slick photography, well-timed scares and likable lead actors have that effect anyway. The Forest is perfectly watchable but not particularly good.
But it’s good enough for January.
Top Photo: Gramercy Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.