Released: January 8, 2016. Directed by: Jason Zada. Starring: Natalie Dormer (times deux), Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa. Runtime: 1 hr 33 min.
The first wide release of 2016 came in horror film The Forest, also the first top billing role for Natalie Dormer (TV’s Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I).
The Brit is tasked with playing the roles of identical twin sisters. Sara stays home in America, while the other, edgier Dormer (Jess) goes to teach in Japan. When word travels to Sara that Jess went venturing into Japan’s infamous Suicide Forest, she travels to Japan to look for her.
The forest at hand is a real place – Aokigahara is its official name – which lies at the base of Mount Fuji. It’s been depicted a couple of times in film, like in SyFy Channel horror flick Grave Halloween and Gus Van Sant drama The Sea of Trees.
Dormer carries the film mildly well, but her range doesn’t make it feel like she’s convincingly creating two different, twin characters. There’s nothing that really seems to separate them – but that could also just be because of poor character development.
When Dormer’s Sara gets to Japan, she meets Aiden — portrayed by Taylor Kinney – a travel journalist who is going into the Suicide Forest for research. When he realizes he can make a good human interest story out of Sara searching for her sister, he invites her along. Guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Owaza) brings them into the forest, as he’s usually the one to go in during daylight to retrieve any deceased people.
The suicide forest might be the only interesting aspect about the film. The story itself is just wandering around the woods, deliriously searching for a point. When it seems like the story is straightening itself out and actually getting towards a satisfying climax, it turns in a new direction and just loses all sense it might have found.
Dormer’s Sara really isn’t all that interesting, either. Her dedication for her sister is nice but also blind and stupid in ways, insistent on staying in the woods overnight in case Jess returns to her tent. I mean, if she wanted to see her sister again, all she has to do is slap on some eyeliner and look at herself in the mirror. And if Jess would have stayed on the path, all might have been peachy.
The thought of the forest and its frightening intent should instil dread, but it doesn’t. There’s more a sense of psychological torment here and it’s an honest snooze. The premise really should work, but it just doesn’t. This might lie in its complete reliance on jump scares. It’s like the film broke a leg at the beginning and needed that as its crutch.
It really should have used its supernatural spin in a more convincing way. In folklore, no spirit truly dies in the forest and their spirits live on in the forest – and that’s why it’s creepy – but this concept wasn’t terrifying enough in the story.
And supernatural horror is the Japanese horror specialty – so maybe this would be better in their hands. Maybe a remake will be in our good fortunes.
This American take is just drowned by a dreadful screenplay. It brings an intriguing story to a mainstream audience, but its execution fails it. It’s very well-filmed because of the lush landscapes, but really, even a snuff film is going to look beautiful if it’s shot in a forest like this.
It’s convincing that we’re watching them navigate through the Suicide Forest — though we’re just watching them go through a forest near Tara Mountain in Western Serbia.
It’s still very pretty, even when they had to film some of it in a former warehouse. That’s the magic of cinema, folks.