[Note: This review contains minor spoilers.]
It is possible to make a searching and cathartic horror feature about suicide. Director Jörg Buttgereit’s experimental anthology film The Death King demonstrated that. It’s possible to make such a film that specifically wrestles with the relatively high suicide rate in contemporary Japan. Sion Sono’s contentious but undeniably blunt Suicide Club illustrated that. It may even be possible to set such a film in Japan’s Aokigahara forest—a notorious real-world suicide site for at least half a century—without stooping to cut-rate exploitation. Unfortunately, director Jason Zada’s debut feature The Forest is the not the feature to achieve this distinction. The film, which takes Japan’s infamous “Sea of Trees” as its central locale, ultimately proves artless, wearisome, and a tad dehumanizing.
In a foreword that unnecessarily and somewhat confusingly cuts between past and present, the viewer is introduced to Sara Price (Natalie Dormer), an American woman who has recently learned that her identical twin Jess (also Dormer) has vanished. An expatriate who teaches English in Tokyo, Jess reportedly disappeared during a field trip to Aokigahara forest. (This seems like an oddly morbid destination for a school excursion, but, then again, American middle schoolers are routinely shuttled to battlefields where soldiers have been slaughtered by the thousands.) When she did not reappear by the next morning, the Japanese authorities concluded that Jess had likely taken her own life, given that this is the usual reason people withdraw into Aokigahara’s embrace. However, Sara harbors an absolute conviction that her sister is still among the living, and promptly sets off for Japan to track her down.
Following a stop at Jess’ school and apartment—as well as some gallingly lazy moments of “Japan Is Weird” gawking—Sara proceeds to the ominous forest near the base of Mt. Fuji. (Location filming in Aokigahara is not permitted, so a Serbian forest serves as a credibly lush, misty stand-in.) There she bumbles about for a bit, having unsettling encounters that are (mostly) attributable to nerves, before conveniently running into another English-speaking foreigner. That would be Aiden (Taylor Kinney), an Australian travel writer who just happens to be planning his own foray into Aokigahara’s wilds. He has made arrangements to accompany Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a ranger who uses his free time to search the forest for the remains of the recently departed, and for the occasional living soul who is wavering about their fateful choice. After hearing Sara’s tale, Aiden convinces the ranger that she should be permitted to tag along. For his part, Aiden admits that his magnanimity is mostly about getting a juicy story for a new article—and a little bit about getting into Sara’s pants.
Everything up to the point where Sara, Aiden, and Michi journey into Aoikigahara proper is essentially a glorified prelude. What follows is a series of encounters with supernatural entities who are apparently bent on scaring Sara shitless—while also luring her deeper into the woods. The restless dead admittedly don’t have to work too hard at this endeavor. Sara’s adamant certainty that her twin still lives functions as kind of will-o’-the-wisp: a slim hope that flits just out of reach, coaxing her into increasingly perilous situations and foolish decisions. By the time she defiantly declares that she will spend the night at Jess’ abandoned campsite on the off chance that her sister will return, it’s clear that Sara has progressed from sisterly instinct to something like grief-fueled monomania.
This certitude that Jess is alive—a belief that is resolute at first, then desperate, then farcical—is the only defining feature of Sara’s character, and a shallow one at that. Even in its flashbacks and dream sequences, the film doesn’t present much substantiation of Sara’s allegedly intimate bond with her sibling; it is urgently declared but not otherwise buttressed by the screenplay. This leaves Dormer flailing: There’s nothing for her to engage with other than Sara’s obsession and, at a distant second, her Ugly American disdain for Japan. Accordingly, Sara emerges as a rather uninteresting and unpleasant protagonist. Dormer can be a beguiling performer with the proper material. Her tragic two-season arc as Anne Boleyn in Michael Hirst’s The Tudors is one of that series’ standout acting achievements. However, The Forest largely abandons her, and the resulting wreck of overcooked neuroses and clumsy histrionics is tedious at best and painful at worst.
Admittedly, there’s a murmur of potential in the the film’s screenplay, which is credited to Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai. In an anemic sort of way, the script at least acknowledges the connection between self-harm and mental illness, and its depiction of trauma’s deforming effect on the mind gives the film’s generally puerile tone a needed dose of adult complexity. The moral conveyed by The Forest’s late narrative swerves is a noble one, at least: Namely, that one cannot identify a suicidal individual by appearance or even by stereotypical melancholic behavior. In what is possibly the solitary revealing moment for an otherwise underfed character, Sara unconvincingly revises her parents’ gruesome murder-suicide into a car accident when relating the story of their deaths, highlighting the societal shame that so often clings to mental disorders.
Such smatterings of intelligence are few and far between, however. Mostly, The Forest just utilizes Jess’ evident suicide as a disingenuous plot device. The viewer learns little about what precipitated the woman’s chronic depression and previous self-harm episodes, beyond the vague assertion that she is “troubled” for reasons connected to the deaths of the twins’ parents. (A murder-suicide? Who wouldn't be?) Jess’ disappearance is merely a means to compel Sara to delve deeper into the haunted wilderness, despite all omens that this is a Bad Idea. At bottom, then, The Forest is a fairly conventional horror flick about a hapless victim being gaslit by ghosts, which makes the paper-thin suicide conceit (and the Aokigahara setting specifically) all the more puzzling.
Befitting its PG-13 rating, The Forest’s ambitions are plainly pitched towards the psychological end of the horror spectrum. Notwithstanding one or two gory moments and some indisputably startling jump scares, The Forest strives to be nervy thriller that gradually constricts the heroine in its coils. It’s perhaps telling that the film's better sequences have nothing to do with the unquiet dead. Unsurprisingly, Aiden is eventually revealed to have been less than truthful about what brought him to Aokigahara. Once the cracks in his story begin to show, the film quite skillfully conveys Sara’s creeping, chilling realization that she is in the middle of nowhere with a strange man who could easily physically overpower her. Some of the screenplay’s few bright spots revolve around the cat-and-mouse games that Sara and Aiden play as mutual mistrust starts to swirl around them.
The writers and director Zada maintain a coy ambiguity about whether the terrors that Sara witnesses are the work of undead spirits or simply figments of her fatigued and panicked mind. There’s a certain Jungian appeal to the notion that Aokigahara gives form to one’s unsettled fears, much like the fetid cave where Luke Skywalker confronts a phantasmal Darth Vader with his own face in The Empire Strikes Back. There are also shades of John Baxter’s wanderings through a sepulchral, crumbling Venice in Don’t Look Now, led by glimpses of what appears to be his deceased daughter. Writer Antosca is no stranger to this sort of heightened symbolism, as he had a hand in successfully re-translating Thomas Harris’ twice-adapted seminal pulp thriller Red Dragon for the final season of Hannibal.
Praise where praise is due: Several of The Forest’s jump scares are executed with the precision of an icepick to the brainstem. Even this jaded horror movie aficionado found himself flinching in terror at the film’s more frightful jolts. However, The Forest lacks much in the way of vitalizing substance between these sporadic heart-pounding highs. The film’s scares often amount to mere seconds of funhouse exhilaration, surrounded by minutes upon minutes of thickheaded dialog and ponderous plot. Moreover, Aoikigahara’s apparitions seem to have no clear motivation beyond frightening Sara out of sheer spite, leaving one with the distinct impression that the filmmakers simply threw arbitrary creepy elements at a wall, and then assembled a movie out of the parts that stuck. The whole affair feels weirdly uneven and unsatisfying: flickers of technically spot-on horror filmmaking in a gray expanse of dreary, bleary storytelling.
While it is hardly the film’s fatal flaw, The Forest’s faintly racist depiction of Japan and the Japanese people is probably its most obnoxious and embarrassing trait. Early scenes traffic in an off-putting Lost in Translation-style exoticism: “Oh, those wacky Japanese and their funny ways!” Zada even slips in a bit of gross-out gaping at a plate of still-wriggling raw cuisine, indicating that in some circles at least, cinematic depictions of Asian cultures still haven’t progressed much beyond Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Far too often, the film’s jump scares rely on the assumption that non-Asian viewers will find a grimacing or cackling Japanese countenance inherently frightening. Japan isn’t a developed nation-state in The Forest: It’s an otherworldly, modern-yet-backwards realm where even rational authorities like teachers and police whisper portentously of the restless dead. There’s something perplexing about a mainstream 2016 film that is more retrograde regarding a non-white culture than Wes Craven’s 1988 voodoo exploitation chiller The Serpent and the Rainbow.
This writer is normally loath to lecture filmmakers on their artistic choices—the perennial critical game of “I Would Have Done It Differently” is a pet peeve—but it’s sort of remarkable how much more appealing The Forest might have been had the Price twins just been written as Japanese-American women. Ditching the ungainly white protagonist might have permitted the film to more frankly explore the controversial topic of Japan’s alarming suicide rate. Moreover, the contrast between the twins might have been sharper and more germane to the plot had Sara been conceived as the assimilated sister and Jess as the Japanese revivalist who travels to her ancestors’ homeland in order to plan her final exit. Reconfiguring Sara’s outsider role as one characterized by simultaneous ethnic identification and cultural disconnection might have transformed the film’s stranger-in-a-strange-land conceit into something much more textured and intriguing. Alas, one is left with The Forest as it is, not how one might wish it to be.