★★ out of ★★★★★
A lost opportunity, and a bridge too far talking point.
I did not expect that this fair-to-middling horror movie would get brought back into the spotlight after coming and going without much fanfare. But the fabled Aokigahara “Suicide” forest got back in the news recently with the tone-deaf, insensitive, and frankly exploitive YouTube video posted by famed YouTube poster Logan Paul that revealed a suicide victim in the famed forest. In a remarkable display of immaturity and bad taste, he and his crew gawk at what they found and generated a tremendous amount of buzz on the internet. Click-bait that is just shy of a snuff film. And… he’s very popular with teenage viewers. Great! YouTube, in a rare bit of common sense, shut down the video, and severed ties with the celebrity vlogger, as did Google. In a bit of an ironic twist, by doing the right thing and cutting off Logan Paul, it drove up the attention to the sad suicide forest. I had no idea who Logan Paul was, prior to this story, if that gives my age away… but I did remember the fictional film from 2015.
As a result of this recent hullaballoo, the attention has swung back around to the movie the Forest, which was released in 2016. I made mention in a recent review of The Boy, that these two movies had similar pedigrees. Neither film would be considered a true independent film, as their budgets were in the $8,000,000-$10,000,000 and both were banking on popular genre film up-and-coming actresses, in the case of The Boy, Lauren Cohan (Walking Dead), and in the Forest, Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones.) Dormer has proven herself to be a powerful screen presence as Marjorie Tyrell, but the whole effort here seems rather dampened by the dreary surroundings and the thin plot. Both films did modestly well, earning back their budgets, if barely so, and both films received fair-to-middling reviews at the time they came out.
The Forest follows the story of Sara (Dormer), who goes into the Aokigahara forest to look for her missing sister, and fears that she may have taken her life as many have reputed to have done before. She finds a guide and partners up with another ex-pat photographer, and they venture into the forest to see if they can find evidence of her whereabouts. They eventually get lost, and start having nightmare visions, causing paranoid delusions, and find an evil spirit has been toying with them.
That’s pretty much it. There’s really not much of a story here, and they tweak the story to make it more of a Blair Witch style evil spirit in the woods and dodge entirely the whole question about the nature of the suicides. And that becomes the interesting dilemma. This film really lacked an emotional center. It could have been really powerful, in depicting severe depression, and the desire to kill oneself, but they completely slipped that premise. Suicide is one of those potential bridge too far elements in movies, even horror movies, that are so off-putting that only the die-hard genre fans are going to enjoy it. If they had decided to make this a rated R movie, The Forest could have gone there. It could have had some of the major characters commit suicide, but they shied away from it.
The difficulty is that suicide is so consumed by sadness, that a movie that goes this direction is going to be a huge downer, and only tangentially horrifying. (I’m ruling out the noble heroic sacrifice for the point of this argument.) It is something fearsome if you care for the protagonists, but to do so would be to court backlash. Suicide is a story usually left to dramas. If you look up “suicide” and “movies” in Google, you’ll get a list of 75 movies, of which only a few would be considered horror films. Interestingly two of them would be Japanese: Suicide Club and Battle Royale.
Both the Logan Paul video and the Netflix TV series 13 Reasons Why, which were pitched to a tween audience have revealed how sensitive our culture is to this issue, and how controversial it can be when not handled properly. So, The Forest decided to take the exit lane before they would have to show an actual suicide, a near impossibility to try and maintain a PG-13 rating. It could have been a statement movie, or it could have become a “banned in multiple countries” type of movie, had they stayed on the path that Aokigahara was pointing to. It was neither poignant nor disturbing. And like The Boy, by taking the safe route, it is, in the end, became a rather forgettable piece.
The Forest is Rated PG-13 and is available for rent on most streaming services.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.