4 out of 10
Directed by Jason Zada
The Forest Review:
We live in an ambiguous world — clear demarcations between good and evil, real and imaginary, are almost never clear — and art should reflect that. At its best it creates an underlying tension between what could be and what is, a fear that we stand not on bedrock but on quicksand and can’t tell them apart, which can support any number of stories. It is the x-factor which separates the surprising from the conventional, particularly in a medium which favors simplification. But it is a means to an end and attempting to hold onto that feeling for too long is ultimately counterproductive. Sara Price (Dormer) is in a similar situation as years of looking after her identical twin Jess (also Dormer) has left her unable to stop and unaware of the danger she’s walking into when she travels to Japan to search for her suddenly-missing sibling.
Although what exactly that danger is can be hard to pinpoint as The Forest tries out many different outfits in its attempts to evoke chills, starting with the Aokigahara Forest’s reputation as a haven for ghosts due to the number of suicides which have taken place there. It’s not a bad place to start for a horror film and it has the added bonus of giving a game Dormer a character to play who exists for herself and her own desires and not as a romantic or secondary lead. It’s fertile ground for character development and storytelling; unfortunately Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai’s screenplay doesn’t know how to take advantage of it. Or more specifically tries to cram as many different variations on a theme (weird sh*t goes on in the woods) into its 95 minutes as humanly possible and forgetting an important point. Moderation, or perhaps balance is a better word, is key as the point of ambiguity is balancing competing ideas.
And without balance, ambiguity becomes as far removed from reality as the fantastic is and loses its focus. The Forest stumbles badly on this point, offering up multiple interpretations as to what is happening to Sara and her gang in the woods. Are actual ghosts haunting her or is she slowly cracking up from the repressed trauma of seeing her parents killed as a child? Did those same memories lead Jess to the forest to commit suicide or was she done in by the same mysterious Samaritan (Kinney) who volunteers to help her explore the area? First-time director Jason Zada goes for an ‘all of the above’ answer in an attempt to draw suspense from as many different areas as possible, and ending up with a jumbled mess for his trouble.
Regretting past decisions is an emotion Sara can identify with as the further she and her group delve into the forest, the more her past comes back to haunt her in one of the few genuinely scary ideas The Forest has, teasing Sara as both hero and villain. Rather than build on this idea, however, Zada only occasionally visits it in-between trips to ghost town as he searches for set-ups for a good jump scare. If it would come down on just one side or the other (especially the side which is attached to character), the film would be able to create rising action into the climax. Instead, it continually undercuts itself, swinging back and forth in mood hard enough to instill whiplash and making it difficult to care for any of the characters. They have simply too many different roles to play to offer solid characterization. For all we talk about thin lines and the difficulty seeing them, at some point everything must be defined because we live in a physical world.
The tension between that period of infinite possibility and finalized definition is a great driver of drama, but only if the fact that it cannot be maintained forever is understood. Unfortunately no one involved with The Forest seems to understand that, or seems willing to give up a good scare in exchange for good suspense. Ambiguity can be an excellent tool for delivering exactly the kind of unease a good horror movie thrives on. But a total lack of understanding on how it works within a basic narrative structure instead leaves everyone involved chasing blind alleys, never to return.