I’ve always enjoyed seeing some form of the term “Based on a True Story” under the title of a movie, even if it has lost a little of its luster over the years. Back in the day you could tack that phrase onto anything and your audience pretty much had to believe what they were seeing was an honest account of something or other that had definitely happened. I mean, you could have probably gone out and perused the microfiche at your local library to your heart’s content, but you were unlikely to find any meaningful information on poltergeists abducting children and swallowing homes. That just probably happened and the government covered it up.
Nowadays, if you’re like me and you see that something was “inspired by real events” your first move is to probably jump on the internet and spoil the fun. Such is the case with The Forest, a movie that takes place in Japan’s notorious Aokigahara Forest, otherwise known as the suicide forest. Sounds spooky, right? It is. Turns out Aokigahara is the 3rdmost popular place in the world for people to off themselves. And being that it’s in Japan-and nobody loves frightening schoolgirl ghosts like Japan-you can bet there are all kinds of creepy legends about the forest. The reality, though, is probably less terrifying. The idea that people would like to be surrounded by the beauty of nature when they pass isn’t exactly groundbreaking. In fact, in the classic Charleton Heston film Soylent Green, people lined up to get lethal injections in a room that merely played videos of nature. No ghosts, just-you know?-pretty flowers.
In The Forest, Natalie Dormer plays Sara, a young woman who goes to Japan in an attempt to find her twin sister Jess (also Dormer), who disappeared into the suicide forest and hasn’t been heard from since. Warned repeatedly not to enter the forest alone (for those who do are often tricked into remaining there forever in one way or another) Sara enlists the assistance of friendly American travel writer and a local ranger to help her in searching. Not long after entering the forest Sara’s world is thrown into turmoil as she must figure out if what the forest is showing her is real or if she can trust her companions. Most importantly, is her sister still alive and can she be saved?
I have to say I wasn’t expecting much from The Forest. There wasn’t a great deal of hype surrounding it and the advertising has been fairly minimal, which is never a fantastic sign of things to come. I was, however, pleasantly surprised. The Forest is not particularly special as far as supernatural thrillers go, but it’s got some clever tricks and it throws enough possibilities at the wall to keep you guessing. I honestly thought I’d figured it all out early on, only to find I’d fallen into the trap. Most importantly, it comes by its conclusion honestly, and that’s a rarity in movies that might actually trick you.
Natalie Dormer is probably what keeps this movie from going direct to video. She sells out for a role that juggles a great deal of traits and emotions, and pulls it off quite nicely. One might presume her time on Game of Thrones has done a fine job of honing her ability to play both sides of a coin, if not all sides of a die. And she isn’t the only one asked to keep secrets. Taylor Kinney does a crafty turn as Aiden, the travel writer who offers to help Sara but may have more nefarious designs.
The Forest is an interesting setting in and of itself and at times its natural eeriness is used to nice effect, with close-ups of natural landscapes that toe the line between horrifying and beautiful. It would have been nice to see a little more use of the setting in such a manner. It often disappears as a character, and settles into merely a background.
Be it the result of low expectations or be it the result of a surprising amount of ambition, I ended up liking The Forest. It’s no genre definer, but it is a pleasant and acceptably puzzling endeavor that doesn’t overstay its welcome. In the end, I even felt myself a bit haunted, and isn’t that the point?