Friday, January 8, 2016

The Forest: Can't see anything for the trees

The Forest (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, for disturbing images and content

By Derrick Bang

We must hear it half a dozen times, from various characters: You shouldn’t visit the forest, because it’s a bad place. But if you’re gonna explore it, then — no matter what — stay on the path.

So, naturally, at first opportunity, our numb-nuts heroine — and her small search party, led by a supposedly experienced guide — stray from the path.

Having ventured into the spooky Aokigahara Forest in order to find her missing twin sister,
Sara (Natalie Dormer) isn't entirely surprised when their guide, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa,
left) spots something potentially unpleasant. Journalist Aidan (Taylor Kinney) is less
concerned; one way or another, he expects to get a great story out of their little adventure.
It’s difficult to endure movie characters who behave with such unrelenting stupidity.

It’s also difficult to endure movie scripts that are so sloppy and ill-conceived. Three people apparently were required to write this laughable excuse for a chiller: Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai. Antosca and Ketai have a minor string of TV credits; this is Cornwell’s scripting debut. To put it kindly, she’d be smart to keep her day job. Her colleagues should stick to the small screen.

Their clumsy narrative for The Forest is yet another example of the idiot plot: a story that lurches from one scene to the next, only because each and every character behaves like an idiot at all times. I’m guessing Antosca & Co. were inspired, in part, by the New Asian Horror Wave that produced The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water and their many imitators; The Forest occasionally, fitfully, achieves that level of atmospheric unease.

But director Jason Zada, in an unimpressive feature debut, has only one unimaginative nail to hit as this saga proceeds, and he hammers it relentlessly:

Our heroine, Sara (Natalie Dormer), hears or sees something unusual. She s-l-o-w-l-y walks toward it, cinematographer Mattias Troelstrup framing her face in an ever-tighter close-up. Then, smash-cut to a whatzit that leaps out at her — which is to say, at us — accompanied by an orchestral shriek from Bear McCreary’s score.

Every. Single. Time.

Is it just me, or are horror movies getting more tired, more predictable ... and more dumb?

The story, such as it is:

The U.S.-based Sara wakens, late one night, knowing — thanks to their shared bond — that something has happened to her identical twin. Jess, forever in search of herself, is living in Japan and teaching English to schoolchildren. During a few frantic and unsatisfying phone calls, Sara learns that Jess ventured into the Aokigahara Forest, at the base of Mr. Fuji, where people often go to commit suicide.

As a result, the forest has become infested with yurei, the restless and angry spirits of these suicides, who “encourage” despairing visitors to join their ranks.

Stuff and nonsense; Sara knows that Jess is still alive, thanks to their connection. Sara therefore hops a plane to Japan, and soon makes her way to a rustic hotel adjacent to the Aokigahara Forest. She strikes up a conversation with expat journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a fellow stranger in a strange land; his connection with an experienced forest guide — Yukiyoshi Ozawa, as the pensive and brooding Michi — turns them into an expedition of three.

Michi routinely scours the forest in order to find the corpses of recent visitors, which then are collected by search-and-rescue parties, and — I’m not making this up — stored like firewood in the basement of the Aokigahara Visitors Center.

One rather suspects, after awhile, that the Visitors Center would begin to, ah, smell rather bad. But that’s just one of this script’s countless inept details, like the needlessly chirpy young woman who “helps” visitors at her center.

Michi repeatedly warns that the forest messes with one’s senses, most particularly when the person in question is “sad,” as he insists is the case with Sara. That’s an eyebrow-lifting non-sequitur, since Dormer doesn’t play her as melancholy, despite the presence — we eventually learn — of a Tragic Childhood Incident.

If indeed Sara is supposed to be suffused with an underlying sorrow, Zada obviously couldn’t draw that emotion from his star. But, then, Zada obviously couldn’t direct traffic, so that’s no real surprise.

Anyway, once deep in the forest — and well off the path — Sara spots a tent that she knows belongs to Jess; her stuff is inside, although she’s nowhere to be seen. The sun is dropping; Michi warns that they shouldn’t be caught in the forest after dark. Sara stubbornly insists on staying; Aiden gallantly joins her; Michi reluctantly leaves them behind.

Night falls. Stuff happens.

Dormer is a capable young actress with an extensive résumé that includes classy TV roles — notably The Tudors, Silk and Elementary, where she plays Jamie Moriarty and Irene Adler — along with solid supporting roles in films such as Rush and the final two Hunger Games entries. Fantasy fans know her as Margaery Tyrell, in HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Point being, Dormer is much too good for this sort of low-rent junk. The tone also is entirely outside her wheelhouse; she’s best as being crafty, scheming and slyly erotic. She doesn’t do “victim” well, and is just sorta blah here, with no common sense, and a one-note expression that is best described as nervously wary.

Sara gets mildly flirty with Aiden, but that could be our imagination. He’s certainly interested in her, but then — as we soon discover — Aiden is something of a puzzle. As the second act shifts to the third, this guy’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, with Kinney’s so-called acting all over the map. Ultimately, Aiden becomes truly ridiculous, as if he belongs in an entirely different film.

Which, needless to say, does nothing for this story’s plot-logic.

I’ll give Antosca & Co. credit for one mildly clever narrative element: the disconnect between Sara’s memory of the aforementioned Tragic Childhood Incident, and what actually happened. This also is the one time that Zada gets subtle: Pay close attention, because the clues are present.

But that’s hardly enough to compensate for the rest of this film’s laughably inept touches.

Eoin Macken has a thankless bit part as Sara’s husband, Rob. Rina Takasaki is an unsettling presence as Hoshiko, a young woman Sara unexpectedly encounters in the forest.

Sadly, for all concerned, The Forest is precisely the sort of post-holiday junk that longtime movie fans expect during Hollywood’s traditional January/February dumping ground.

Two weeks in theaters, and then — mercifully — something to be forgotten, forevermore.

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