The last time Sara (Natalie Dormer) spoke to her identical twin sister, Jess, a teacher working in Japan who goes missing in the Aokigahara forest, she sounded “off.” That’s one way of describing the opening minutes of Jason Zada’s The Forest, which articulates Sara’s disquiet with the dull eloquence of a perfume commercial. In Tokyo, Sara peers in frozen apathy at the neon wonderland photogenically reflected against her taxi cab’s window. But as this self-conscious sizzle reel continues to pick up transmissions from past and near-future moments, of Sara packing her bags stateside and bidding adieu to her beau, Rob (Eoin Macken), and later encountering a man who informs her of Aokigahara’s status as a suicide destination, it comes to reflect less the character’s driftwood-like existence than the filmmakers’ impatient drive to get down to their jump-scare-a-thon duties as quickly as possible.
The Forest is constantly torn in two directions, toward the past, where Sara and Jess’s trauma over the loss of their parents is rooted, and the present, inside a forest whose cultural value to Japan is trivialized in the film’s bum-rush to liberate, however horrifically, the twins from their agonies. Inside a bar near Aokigahara, Sara meets an Australian travel reporter, Aiden (Taylor Kinney), to whom she mispresents the nature of her parents’ demise. She describes a drunk driver’s rampage, but the truth is a murder-suicide, which is so tawdrily revealed on screen that Dormer is effectively denied from tinging Sara’s telling misrepresentation with anything resembling pathos. In the end, the character’s false confession is one of many exposition dumps that gingerbread-crumb the narrative toward its obligatorily cheap closing beat.
Sara and Jess’s duet of pain is, on the surface, a complicated show of codependence, informed by what the latter saw and the former didn’t on the night of their parents’ death, and it’s cannily linked to the mythos of Aokigahara, a place abundant in death and, of course, ghosts that bring out one’s fears. Sara dutifully treks into the forest to look for Jess with Aiden’s help, and after predictably refusing to stay on the marked path, per their guide Michi’s (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) instructions, ghosts come to prey on the sadness that grips her heart through one false vision after another. If there’s any resonance to her journey into the dark recesses of the night, and as such the past, it’s cheapened by how the sisters’ anguish is so bluntly stated through dialogue and reflected in their very personas; if Sara is a square peg, then Jess, mostly seen in flashbacks, is her emo flipside.
Though one never believes that Dormer is playing two different individuals, it’s difficult to imagine any actress emerging from the film’s cavalcade of recycled shlock, all flickering fluorescent lights and face-mutating ghoulies, with a more clearly delineated sense of the sisters’ personalities. The film, whose exteriors were mostly shot in Serbia, captures the ethereal pall of Japan’s infamous suicide forest at the base of Mount Fuji with minimal fuss, though there’s little, not even the context of Jess working at a school, that can excuse the story’s Big Bad taking the hackneyed form of a uniformed high school girl. In downplaying their backstory in the interest of delivering cliché thrills, the filmmakers ironically succeed at likening the twins to the very fraudulence of the things that go bump in the forest’s night.