Survivor’s guilt, hallucinations, and a supernatural sibling sense are on the shortlist of what to expect when you enter The Forest.
These beats are well-worn, but the key difference between great horror tales and the rest of the pack is the characters. Do you care about their goals, journeys, or fates? A good standard to measure against is their decision-making. Is this something a smart person would do? If the answer is ‘no,’ it can be tough to root for them.
It is sometimes tough to root for the personalities in The Forest.
Opening up at a reckless speed, we’re introduced to Sara (Natalie Dormer), who is having a dream set in a woodland area riddled with shaky cam quick cuts. She’s further unsettled by the experience when she’s summoned to Japan to locate her missing, trouble-making identical twin Jess (also Natalie Dormer). As it turns out, those woods in the dream are the Aokigahara Forest, a real Japanese location where many people have traveled to commit suicide.
Jess, a schoolteacher in Tokyo, is known to have gone into these woods with children for a class field trip because of the area’s history and beauty. While Sara is convinced Jess is still alive because of their innate mystical twin connection, Japanese authorities are skeptical. Their stance is if the person has been in the forest longer than 48 hours, it’s assumed their suicide was successful.
Sara is joined on her search by Australian journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney), whom she just met in a bar the night before. Aiden’s reasons for accompanying her are never completely clear. He is supportive and inquisitive because he wants to publish her story, but also plays the “I really care about you” card, though neither motivation is entirely concrete.
When first venturing into the forest, the pair is led by Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) a guide who makes frequent trips there to locate missing bodies. Michi is hesitant to bring Sara along because he senses she is sad. Historically, the forest’s spirits have been known to turn a person’s sadness to madness, convincing them to do very bad things. Michi is easily the most likable, rational character in the movie. He sticks firmly to two rules: Never leave the path and get out before nightfall.
These rules are prevalent in the film’s trailer:
This is where that decision-making meter starts to tilt heavily to the wrong side. When the trio finds a clue indicating Jess could be alive, the sun is starting to set. While Michi is content to come back to this point in the daylight tomorrow, Sara simply refuses to exit the forest without her sister. The confusingly-motivated Aiden offers to stay with her overnight and thus, the trio is now a duo.
Throughout the rest of the film, the forest attempts communication with Sara as she gets more lost. It whispers to her. It writes her notes. She’s shown glimpses of her childhood through haunting mirages, and we finally learn what makes her sister so different from her. While she’s assured before the trip that all of this deception will only be in her head, it does cause her to make some poor decisions.
For all the forest’s tricks on poor Sara, it never quite fools the audience. The notion that the spirits will confuse the travelers only works to puzzle the viewers. This aspect of the forest’s power is used as a crutch instead of a spring, coming across as lazy storytelling. It’s why Aiden is never a fully-formed person or why problems can suddenly be solved in the movie’s final minutes.
What the movie does get right is overall direction. There are several gorgeous shots of the lights of Tokyo and some creative camerawork in the woods. Dormer is believable as Sara, and it would’ve been fun to see her more as Jess. Though he’s not given a complete part to play, Kinney provides a charisma to Aiden that’s refreshing. The story’s pace is spot-on, never overstaying its welcome.
The Forest is a bit like goulash (or should I say ghoul-ash) within the horror genre. Borrowed elements from stronger films like The Blair Witch Project and Oculus are present, but their respective flavors are lost in the mix. Ultimately, it makes for an experience that is filling enough, though too familiar to be appetizing. Perhaps the movie would’ve been more satisfying if it’d challenged its own rule and decided to stray from the path.