The Forest is not a good movie.
It’s an unfortunate truth that there are a lot of bad horror movies out there. Bad writing, under-developed characters, lack of scares, stupid endings. Sometimes it’s OK when a horror movie isn’t very good because I can find it enjoyable in other ways. Maybe a bad horror movie is so ridiculous and over–the-top that it’s an experience in its own right. Other times, however, I find bad horror movies maddening, especially when those movies could have been good and interesting and really scary, but instead they wasted all their potential, and I leave the theater bored, not scared, and dreaming about what might have been.
Cue The Forest, which definitely falls into the latter category.
In The Forest, Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones, The Tudors) stars as twin sisters Sara and Jess. Sara’s life seems perfect while Jess’s life is a series of disappointments punctuated by bouts of serious depression. The reason behind this discrepancy lies in a traumatic, tragic family event that occurred when the twins were children, and both reacted to the event in different ways. As adults, Sara is accustomed to “rescuing” Jess from whatever emotional turmoil she gets herself into.
Before the events of the film, Jess decided to move to Japan to teach English to school children. She hoped this move would turn her life around, and things were going well at first. That is, until one evening, when the Japanese police notify Sara that they believe Jess to be dead, as she recently ventured into the infamous Aokigahara forest. She’s been missing ever since. And people that go missing in the forest usually went to commit suicide and succeeded.
Convinced that Jess is still alive, Sara refuses to accept the news of her death and travels to the forest to retrieve her sister. On her journey, she meets Aiden, played by Taylor Kinney (The Vampire Diaries, Zero Dark Thirty), a travel writer researching the forest. Led by a local guide, they venture deep into the forest, ignoring the advice of the locals who constantly warn them about the dangers of the forest.
You see, the forest is haunted by angry, vengeful ghosts called Yūrei. The forest is said to show people things that are not real and exploit that sadness in a person’s heart, making them commit terrible deeds.
To be honest, I felt conflicted about this movie before I saw it. I really like Natalie Dormer as an actress and I’ve enjoyed a lot of her work. I was excited that The Forest is a psychological horror, my favorite horror subgenre. But the fact that this film is set in the actual Aokigahara forest made me nervous, as it did for many people who doubted that this film would respect the location and avoid appropriating Japanese culture . Additionally, the trailers looked kind of iffy, and January release dates aren’t known for delivering solid efforts.
So when I sat in the theater, waiting for the lights to go down and the movie to start, I didn’t really know what to expect. I decided to be as open-minded as possible, all in an effort to be impartial.
And my conclusion about this film can be summed up thusly: in the first act there are seeds of something intriguing, maybe even worthwhile, but the second act fails to nurture these seeds and goes in a different, half-baked direction, all of which is sloppily wrapped up in the third act with a tacked-on, lackluster ending.
It was disappointing.
But it was not Natalie Dormer’s fault, nor was it Taylor Kinney’s. Natalie Dormer is easily the best part of the movie, since she successfully crafts a believable character despite the script’s best efforts to refuse her character depth of any kind. She did a good job playing both Sara and Jess (even though Jess is hardly in the movie). As Sara, Dormer makes the character stubborn but vulnerable, determined but afraid, full of concern for her sister but weary of having to take care of her. I could imagine her as a real person.
Taylor Kinney is, unfortunately, not so skilled, and his Aiden comes off as stiff and forced. The script does not help him create any depth for his character at all, so his performance is pretty flat. The discrepancy in their respective talents is especially obvious in their scenes together, where it becomes clear that Dormer is a much more experienced actor.
It wasn’t the cinematography’s fault either, which I thought was lovely, despite the fact that the film was not shot in the Aokigahara forest (filming in the forest is forbidden). The Aokigahara forest is full of natural beauty and majesty, all of which is stunningly captured. Additionally, it’s called Jukai by locals, which means “Sea of Trees,” and the film is able to communicate just how sea-like it was. Viewed from above, it even looks like the surface of the sea, as the trees are densely packed together. The film does a great job depicting how immense the forest is, how encompassing, how isolating. In some of the more thoughtful sequences, the forest almost becomes its own character, at times beautiful, calm, and serene; in others, menacing, disorienting, and malicious.
No, the problem with this film is the writing. Some characters are little better than plot points, the scares are thrown in haphazardly, the “rules” of the forest and the intentions of the ghosts are inconsistent, and the Aokigahara forest is not given its due.
Like I mentioned above, the characters are very underdeveloped. Sara is written as a privileged American woman, stubbornly clinging to the hope that her twin is alive while repeatedly lamenting how much she has to rescue her sister. We don’t know who she is beyond this. The film tells us that the deep dark secret that binds the twins didn’t impact Sara like it impacted Jess, but we don’t see this. The film only tells us that Sara is a functioning adult while Jess is a fragile wreck, and leaves it at that.
And poor Jess is hardly in the film, popping up for one trite flashback and one other scene. That’s all. Her lack of development prevents the film from exploring mental illness in a meaningful way. There is no examination of her struggles from her point of view. Only Sara has the chance to tell the audience how to feel about Jess and her mental health, and what she says amounts to a disturbing, cruel dismissal of suicidal ideation. If the film explored Sara’s attitude further, maybe this could have said something important about depression and how it affects family members, but of course the film does not do this, and ends up trivializing a serious mental health issue.
On the whole, the film neglected the relationship between Sara and Jess, to its detriment. Family relationships, especially sibling relationships, can be very complicated. As a viewer, I wanted to know much more about the relationship between these sisters. What does it feel like for Sara to care for her sister? Why does she keep doing this? How does Jess feel about “needing” to be rescued? How does she feel about her sister?
I think the film could have benefitted from a more nuanced portrayal of their bond, if for no other reason than to make Sara’s character more concrete and to make her trials in the forest more distressing and scarier. If the forest is supposed to exploit the sadness and dark thoughts in her heart, write the sadness and dark thoughts into her character. Don’t just hint at it, show me! Use Sara and Jess’s relationship to anchor the story. Give the forest something to exploit!
Another failure of the writing was the utter lack of respect paid to the Aokigahara forest itself. A lot of people were concerned about how this movie might resort to using Japan and its people as mere props. That’s what happened.
There was no reason for this movie to take place in Aokigahara, narratively or thematically speaking. There was no discussion of how 25,000 Japanese people took their own lives in 2014, or how the suicide rate is that 18.5 people out of 100,000 commit suicide, a rate 60% above the world average (for comparison, the suicide rate for the U.S. is 12.5 people out of 100,000). There is no discussion of the myriad efforts taken by the Japanese government to prevent suicide. There is no discussion of the many factors that give rise to suicidal ideation, both in Japanese culture and abroad. There is a brief discussion of what the forest’s history, but it doesn’t do the forest justice at all.
Most damning, the film doesn’t spend any time with a person contemplating suicide. Neither Sara or Aiden are suffering from depression. Jess is, but she’s barely in the film. The only time Sara encounters a person contemplating suicide, she isn’t part of the interaction. Instead, their guide goes to check on the man, but the conversation happens off-screen and out of hearing.
It’s in this way that suicide is depersonalized and removed from those who are struggling. Sure, the film poignantly depicts the ribbons of tape people use to mark their journey into the forest, so their families can find their remains. We see items the departed have left behind. We even see the remains of one person. But where is the humanity here? It feels empty, devoid of purpose other than a cheap way to create atmosphere.
That’s the problem with choosing to set a story in a place like Aokigahara—the meaning of the place has to be confronted. It is callous, disrespectful, and exploitive to not acknowledge the full gravity of what happens at Aokigahara and why.
Not that horror can never deal with real tragedy—I think the genre is uniquely positioned to do this—but such portrayals require a bit more care than picking a notorious setting to do the story’s heavy lifting.
At the very least, if you want to discount all concerns about “tact” and “respect,” a lot of good material was left on the table by choosing not to depict the forest in an insightful, careful way. Why did these people feel suicide was the answer? What happened to Jess to make her go to the forest?
And what is the deal with the ghosts, the Yūrei, who remain in the forest? Are they trapped? What do they want? How do they work? By failing to explore these elements, the movie can’t make up it’s mind. The forest/Yūrei seem to change motives from scene to scene. I couldn’t decide what they wanted from Sara or whether or not the ghosts were real or in Sara’s head. Normally, I’d really enjoy such ambiguity, but in this case it was clear that the filmmakers hadn’t decided what the truth was. The end result was that I was more confused than unsettled by the Yūrei.
As for the ending, all I will say is that endings demand resolution of some kind. Without spoiling anything, the ending is contrived, pulls the rug out from under the audience, and resolves nothing. It doesn’t make sense and feels like a cop-out. Thank God I went to see it during a deserted matinee showing, since I started laughing at how bad it was.
All in all, this film was incredibly lazy. It took a great concept and sabotaged it from the start by failing to develop the characters, create real tension, and explore the nuance of the themes it wielded so carelessly. It sacrificed narrative continuity for cheap jump scares, which is always a bad idea. Novelty can be a good thing, but it doesn’t guarantee scares or even a solid story, especially when it is so offensive.