Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer stars in The Forest, a decent horror movie that offers plenty of shriek-worthy moments. But its more interesting aspects are the repressed guilt and sorrow at its core, which provide unexpected emotional heft as the protagonist slowly starts losing touch with reality.
That’s not to say that The Forest—from first-time feature director Jason Zada, but co-produced by horror veteran David S. Goyer—lacks atmospheric thrills (the sound design offers layers of creepy animal noises, faintly singing children, and “who’s out there?” leaf-rustling) and angry apparitions. It has all of that and more. But at its heart, it’s mostly a film about a woman who doesn’t realize just how badly she needs to confront her own personal demons ... until it’s too late.
That woman is Sara (Dormer), who’s traveled to Japan in search of her twin sister, Jess (also Dormer). While Sara is blonde, married, and apparently quite secure in her life, Jess is an edgy brunette with poor decision-making skills who often relies on her sister to bail her out. This latest stunt—darting into Aokigahara, a real-life wilderness at the base of Mount Fuji that’s among the most popular suicide spots in the world, while leading her high-school students on a field trip—has triggered the twin psychic hotline between them. And Sara doesn’t hesitate: she needs to go into the forest and find Jess.
Sara’s rather narrow-sighted determination persists despite the fact that at every turn, people are like, “Ooh girl, don’t go in the forest.” Even seemingly level-headed people, like the sympathetic Japanese park ranger (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) she meets, believe Aokigahara is full of malevolent spirits of people who’ve suicided there, and who now roam around playing mind games on the sad, vulnerable people who dare step off the path and onto their turf.
Though we’re at first meant to believe that Sara is the sensible twin, that assumption is challenged even before she starts poking around in the forest. She has recurring nightmares about a family tragedy that happened when the sisters were small girls—one that Jess forced herself to confront head-on, but that Sara turned away from, afraid to look and face the truth. Sara’s always felt guilty about not sharing Jess’s burden. But whose burden was really worse?
A lot of The Forest consists of Dormer racing through gloomy, misty thickets of trees, screaming her head off. This is the first time I’ve seen her play a leading role (much less a contemporary character, and an American at that), and she definitely pulls it off. Even in scenes where Sara does blundering, horror-movie leading lady stuff—and there are several of those—you can sense that she’s acting rashly because she’s finally working through the survivor’s guilt that’s shaped her entire life. She’s finally free, and she’s finally sharing Jess’s ability to make her own bad choices. Unfortunately, she picked a hell of a place to do that.
And then there are those hallucinations the forest supposedly triggers. There are some wholesale horror cliches, like a teen in a schoolgirl outfit who is, duh, not what she seems, and some stealthy corpses who’re just designed to be as frightening (PG-13 frightening, but still) as possible. But the scariest moments in the script from Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai come courtesy of Sara’s growing distrust of Aiden (Taylor Kinney), the seemingly friendly journalist who helps her gain access to the forest, saying he wants to write a story about her search (and because she’s hot, he later admits). Is he a good dude, or is he a total creeper ... or maybe worse? Sara’s uncertainty shifts back and forth, and the film has a devilishly good time playing with the audience’s perceptions, too.
If the ending’s a bit of a letdown—simply because of how obvious it is—The Forest has more or less earned it by that point by hammering home its tale-of-two-sisters theme. The movie wraps itself up in a tidy bow, and you know exactly where everything stands.
It’d be remiss not to mention that The Forest has gotten some blowback for its setting, since it takes advantage of a real-life location in Japan that’s known for its high suicide rate. And it’s yet another movie about Japanese culture with Western main characters. (That said, it’s not the first Western film to latch onto Aokigahara’s blend of natural beauty and haunting reputation.) It very noticeably takes place in a country that is foreign to its blonde protagonist—shades of the American remake of The Grudge—who doesn’t understand the language or culture. She also doesn’t respect anything she’s told about Aokigahara, which is described in solemn tones, but is also depicted as a ghoul-stuffed Very Bad Place for the sake of freaking out the audience as much as possible.
These are valid concerns, especially when you start to wonder why the scriptwriters didn’t just just invent their own haunted forest instead. The Forest definitely would have worked just as well—and probably better, given the controversy—within a fictional setting instead of a real one.
But it’s up to each viewer to decide if this is a deal-breaker for you. All I can say is that there are well-drawn Japanese characters in the film—the park ranger is definitely the smartest guy in the whole thing—and The Forest is an entertaining ride for other reasons.
Photos courtesy of Gramercy Pictures