Review: The Forest (2016)

the forest filmAt the heart of The Forest is a supernatural ghost story that wants to have something meaningful to say about the Aokigahara Suicide Forest in Japan. That setting alone is rife with atmosphere without the film even attempting to introduce its paranormal aspects. For a nation that ranks one of the highest in the world for suicide rate, it’s disquieting to think that that country has a specific designated place for committing the act. One could compare the Aokigahara Forest to, say, the George Washington Bridge in New York City as a popular place for suicide, but the sheer number of people seeking quiet solace in the trees of Aokigahara far outtotals the latter location. The creepy level of The Forest, then, doesn’t even require the additional ghost and yurei pieces that the film puts in place, because the history of the site does the hard work for the filmmakers.

It’s confounding, though, when the film is unable to manage that mood to an appropriate degree. Director Jason Zada ensures that the viewer gets all of the requisite background material of the film before the film’s protagonist, Natalie Dormer’s Sara, even makes it to Japan – the opening moments after the credits roll are overstuffed with exposition, a quick run-down of a laundry list of things the viewer must know before journeying on this adventure with Sara. First, Sara has a twin that has gone into Aokigahara Suicide Forest and no one has heard from her since. Second, it’s not a place one goes for a fun backpacking trip, and most people who go in don’t come out. And last, Sara’s just the type of headstrong person to go looking for her sister Jess in a dark forest where people go to die because she just has that twin twinge.

So right off the bat, The Forest sets in motion those supernatural tropes and establishes the forest’s history. It’s a promising start if one forgives the exposition drops and the cliched meeting of handsome rugged journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney) in a bar. There’s something infectious about the forest’s darkness, the intermingling of feelings about such a peaceful place and the terrible horrors that the trees hide; it’s enough to give chills, except that that comes from the real life connotations of Aokigahara setting in, the reminder that people seek the end here and that multiple souls are lost within those woods.

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It’s almost as if Zada and the writing team – Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai – saw the excellent Vice documentary and thought it would be a good idea for a horror movie, so they copied the entire thing for the first half of the film without touching on any of the emotional depth that video holds. The Forest is less interested in exploring what leads to suicide, and instead shows garish displays of dead bodies and Japanese-influenced ghosts. It’s expected from this type of film, but The Forest often mixes in a ton of different ideas explained away as Aokigahara’s psychological influence on the victim.

Disappointing is a good word to use, because The Forest has tons of source material to work with. Instead, it falls back on standard jump scares and a lazy plotting element that pretty much allows anything and everything to happen. It doesn’t help that the script often draws attention to just how stupid Sara acts throughout the film. Again, it’s explained away as a “psychological effect,” but that’s trite bullshit that won’t interest anybody looking for something deeper. That’s not even mentioning the generic twin usage; quite literally, Jess is the “dark” twin with black hair while Sara’s the “innocent” one with blonde hair.

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The Forest had the setting to sell something genuinely affecting. Suicide is a complicated matter, one that shouldn’t be boiled down to The Forest‘s pithy attempt at creating a ghost story from a real place. I’m sure Aokigahara has an overwhelming aura about it when visited in person, infused in the air in much the same way as concentration camps carry an infinitesimal weight. But The Forest simply wants to use that aura to sell the film’s supernatural elements, and as expected, Zada’s exploitation of the suicide forest will be lost on shelves like the souls in the deep heart of Aokigahara.

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