I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Bill Graham // Film Critic
There’s something immensely disturbing about the idea of a forest in Japan where people go to do harm to themselves. So it’s a shame that THE FOREST, the feature debut of director Jason Zada, doesn’t cash in on those chips. Instead, it manages to halfheartedly grasp at horror ideas and largely waste a fine performance from Natalie Dormer (GAME OF THRONES) who is pulling double duty as the two stars of the film, twin sisters Sara and Jess.
The film follows Sara (brunette Dormer), a married woman in America who has her life together but is constantly coming to the rescue of her twin sister Jess (a raven haired Dormer complete with a nose piercing), who we find out has been teaching in Japan for a little while before she goes missing into the dreaded Aokigahara forest, known in real life as the Suicide Forest.
While the setup for a film like this should be relatively quick, we get off to a rocky start as we watch Sara have to justify to her wooden husband Rob (Eoin Macken) that her psychic wonder-twin connection tells her Jess hasn’t committed suicide but that she is alive somewhere in Japan. Again and again, this idea is played up that there’s even so much as a feeling almost like a noise you can’t hear that will suddenly go silent if your sibling is dead. How you can feel something you can’t hear is beyond me, but that’s the least of my concerns with the film.
Thankfully, as many pitfalls as Zada falls into, I won’t claim he tries too many jump-scares. The few he did seemed to land with a few sketchy audience members but went largely unremarked by the rest of the audience. I think more than likely any excess jump-scare moments were likely nixed in the test screening process that failed to garner anything.
So, Sara is traveling alone to track down her miscreant sister in Japan and she stumbles upon this haunted forest that legend has it where people of Japan go to commit suicide. It was here that Jess was last seen during a school field trip and it’s here where the film finally starts to take shape a third of the way in. She is warned countless times to not travel into the forest and that she should definitely, never, wander off the path. Contemplating her next move in a local bar, Sara meets the affable Aiden (Taylor Kinney), who admits right off that he was simply hitting on her when he uses the classic pickup line, “Have I seen you somewhere before?” Of course, Sara thinks he must mean Jess and goes into the full explanation of their history.
Thinking on it now, it’s quite a clever way to introduce the characters and give more backstory for the film. Aiden just happens to be a writer, and he thinks he might have a story here. He also speaks Japanese and even knows someone that volunteers to walk the forest during the day as part of a suicide watch. Perfect. So the trio meetup in the morning and off they go into this demented forest. But before we step foot we get one more warning: The forest will twist your thoughts. If you have darkness in your heart, the trapped ghosts will prey on that. So, don’t trust anything weird you see or hear less they trick you into doing bad things. If alarm bells aren’t ringing for the audience, I don’t know what will set them off. The stakes have been basically laid down. Whatever Sara sees or hears that is weird is definitely not happening.
In a way it’s the best and worst part of the film. With advanced notice, we know as an audience to not trust anything. This manages to take the wind out of the sails of possibility. Had the guide warned us and Sara later in the film it might have given an extra twist that what we saw before and after might be questioned. Simple scripting issues should have been quick to spot but somehow went unnoticed. As it stands, we end up getting a film that has its best moments when it is playing things straight. There’s even a moment to really steer into the swerve they setup that The Forest never fully commits to the way a film like OCULUS did to varying success. Instead, the relationship between Aiden and Sara is given a bit of charm and depth that becomes less compelling as it goes along.
What is possessing Sara to go this far for her sister is also at question. At one point she clearly states to Aiden that what separates Jess and her is that Jess stars into the darkness while she tends to run away from it. She says this line moments before running off into the woods after what may or may not be an apparition with little more than a cellphone light guiding her path. It’s this kind of writing that makes you cringe because it shows a lack of consistent character that should be part of screenwriting 101. And yet, for all the dings against it, the film’s sheer ineptitude is somehow not entirely terrible. Perhaps that’s because Dormer largely is the front and center star of the film and Zada and crew knew this. There’s countless closeups and single shots of Dormer. After watching the film I could recall every crease, bump, and contour of her face as if it was my own. The film lingers there, smartly, as she gives a raw nerve performance. At one point she lashes out at someone and you could feel the entire audience secretly cheer her on.
Ultimately, THE FOREST could use some tightening or a better exploration of the themes it was going for. For a horror film there has to be something horrific at the core. There could have been a more human element that could have really upped the ante but the writing quickly detours away from any of those notions. It’s a shame because the setting and mood is rich for something grand. Instead, we get a largely wasted quality performance from Dormer in a film that feels largely inoffensive in its mundanity. A horror film shouldn’t make you yawn but I was constantly wondering when the brief 95-minute run time would end. There a good film here but it’s lost in the forest.
THE FOREST opens today.