Decently paced and with an interesting aesthetic for the first third, The Forest stumbles when it comes to plot and character. It desperately wants to have something to say about the weight of sibling bonds – good and bad – and the devastating nature of mental illness, but fails to understand the reality behind either, leaving a flattened yet somehow overblown tale of supernatural woe as the result. Though I like the camera tricks that allowed Natalie Dormer to play a pair of identical twins, I’m disappointed that an actress of her caliber chose this to be her first feature film as a lead. The Forest does its best work in the beginning, letting the gloomy atmosphere and nearly oppressive silence do the work. The moment it dips into the supernatural – or indeed, anything to do with mental illness – it loses both momentum and credibility. This movie is not good and I’m not surprised it did so poorly in theaters.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the end of the problem.
Consider an unrelated ghost story: Mark Danielewsk’s House of Leaves. The dedication page always stuck with me. It reads simply, this is not for you. It’s advice I wish the filmmakers behind The Forest would have taken.
The story of the very real Aokigahara forest is not for Americans to dissemble. This is not to say that horror films shouldn’t be used to explore the reality and complexity of mental illness – not at all – but rather to recognize that these things don’t exist in a void. Setting The Forest in Aokigahara is a move better suited to the older days of colonialism, something I really wish America as a society had moved beyond. This is not for you. By making the lead characters both white and American, The Forest states – intentionally or otherwise – that it has the right to coopt this place of tragedy for its own purposes. This isn’t even to say that horror should stay away from using real life tragedy as a source of inspiration, but that we, as filmmakers, have an obligation to realize that not all these stories belong to us. Aokigahara is a tragic place, and a symbol of how mental illness is seen and treated in Japan. It is not for Americans to take. To whitewash this place means to cover up issues that Japan faces concerning mental health and reinforces the “model minority” stereotype – that only white people could possibly deal with trauma or illness, that Japanese people are somehow untouched by it.
I doubt The Forest intended any of this, but intent doesn’t matter nearly so much as impact. This film is racist and doesn’t even realize it, filled with scenes of the lead standing oppressed by the strange, superstitious “other” as she traverses across Japan – the level-headed foreigner surrounded by savage weirdness and homicidal mythology. Horror as a genre has made some great steps forward in the past few years concerning its representations of race, but it’s far from perfect. The Forest is an excellent example as to why. This project shouldn’t have been made in the first place, yet here it stands, coopting tragedy and whitewashing a very real place as this narrative has no power to hurt real, living people.
This is not for you. And that is the end of it.