SUMMARY of PLOT (skip down to ANALYSIS if you don’t want SPOILERS):
In Jason Zada’s The Forest (2016), lead actress Natalie Dormer plays Sarah as she travels to Japan in search of her identical twin sister Jess (also Natalie Dormer). Jess recently went missing, last seen entering Aokigahara, aka the Suicide Forest. Naturally, everyone is assuming that she went there to kill herself, because it doesn’t take a genius to figure out JESS + SUICIDE FOREST = DEAD JESS. Sarah, however, never doubts that Jess is still alive, due to their twin telepathy which she describes as a low sound in the background that no one else can here. Despite repeated warnings against doing so and the many stories of the sinister yurei (angry spirits), Sarah is determined to enter the forest. She meets Aidan (Taylor Kinney) a journalist from Australia who speaks fluent Japanese, and takes an interest in writting about Sarah’s quest. He inquires about the death of her parents, and in a fantastic scene, we listen as Sarah narrates a fake story about how her parents died in a car crash, but watch as we descend with the young twins and their grandmother to discover that their parents had killed themselves in the basement. This was my favorite scene in the whole movie.
Anyway, Aidan invites her to tag along into the forest as he accompanies Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) on a suicide patrol (if I ever found a creepy children’s TV show, Suicide Patrol would make a great name). Just as the trio are about to head back, they find Jess’s tent in the forest. Sarah refuses to leave, assuming that Jess will be coming back to sleep there for the night, and Sir gentleman Aidan decides to stay with her for the night. Michi warns them gravely, and as he leaves, I couldn’t help interpret his face as “So long, folks.”
Night falls. Such and such sounds that may or may not be real, and this and that person in the forest who may or may not be real, lead Sarah down a path of increasing paranoia and uncertainty. This paranoia begins when Sarah speaks with young schoolgirl Hoshiko (Rina Takasaki) who says, in broken English, “No trust him.” Not long after, Sarah flees from Aidan, falls into a cave, and again runs into Hoshiko who, in jumpscare-y fashion, now reveals her true corpse-form to Sarah. Aidan comes to her rescue and the two head off to enter a deserted cabin, that Aidan conveniently, or suspiciously just happened to find. As Aidan tries to get the old radio to work, Sarah becomes increasingly suspicious of him. From behind a locked door, which she assumes leads to the basement, Sarah hears Jess whisper to her. Sliding a note under the door, she tells Sarah to get the key from Aidan or he will kill them both. Well, as it goes, in the scuffle for the key Sarah kills Aidan, stabs him in the heart really.
As if logic and luck were having some odd affair, the basement door unlocks itself, and Sarah descends into the basement. A young child-Jess leads her downwards. At the bottom, she sees her parents’ corpses. Her father’s corpse comes to life and his hand grips Sarah’s arm. She cuts his hand away and flees. In the forest again, Sarah sees and chases after her sister. Jess escapes the forest and runs into a search party. Sarah, in an unfortunate twist, as luck would fuck it, has herself committed suicide: she in fact slit her wrist when she hallucinated that she was slicing her father’s hand. Now safely out of the forest, in a somber moment, Jess senses Sarah’s death as the “sound” of the twin telepathy turns to silence.
The Forest has essentially two layers. At its core, the film centers on the childhood trauma of the suicide of Sarah’s parents. Around this nucleus, is the story of Sarah’s search for her sister Jess.
In this core level, I argue that Sarah and Jess are in fact a single person. Like a split-personality, Jess and Sarah represent two split reactions as a defense to the trauma of her parents’ suicide. Jess has darker hair, appears to get in trouble a lot, suffers from anxiety, has attempted suicide, and in general appears to have a morbid sense of humor. Sarah is, in fact, less characterized than her sister. Half-way through the film, it is fairly easy to name what Jess is like, but Sarah’s personality remains more elusive. In other words, Jess and Sarah may not be so different.
She says it herself, that the difference between the two of them was that Jess looked (saw her dead parents) while she closed her eyes. Sarah at once looked and did not look: she cannot face this memory. Their dynamic is such, that Jess repeatedly gets into trouble and Sarah bails her out. In other words, Sarah is always chasing after Jess: this marks her quest for remembering. Jess comes to represent this repressed memory, and, unconsciously, Sarah needs to remember.
Jess’s tent in the forest was first seen in a dream in which Sarah finds child-Jess in the tent set up in the basement. In this way, the forest itself (the entirety of the film space really) comes to serve as a space for repetition of and stand in for the basement. When she finally remembers and is assaulted by the memory of her parents’ suicide, Sarah herself comes to commit suicide in, subjectively, exactly with and where her parents did. Jess, on the other hand, escapes.
Jess has brought a tent into the forest, which means, explained Michi, that she is unsure whether or not she wants to kill herself. Sarah says that Jess probably went into the forest to “face her demons.” It is perhaps not too much of a stretch to suggest that Jess is the main character, and the journey of Sarah marks the resolution of internal psychical conflict over suicide. In fact, the second Sarah slashes her wrist, we cut to a gasping and bewilder Jess who looks as if she suddenly has come to life.
The Japanese setting looks amazing and offers an alternative to the long history of horror filled (American) forests. The haunted forest, though somewhat a cliche, was made spooky again with this particular Japanese backstory. The film also does not baby the viewer, revealing information enough to thrust forward the plot, but not making everything explicit. The use of dream scenes, in particular, demonstrate a nuance that I appreciated. In other words, the dreams don’t damn near explicitly tell you what is happening. The scene showing the discovery of the suicide of the parents synced with Sarah’s fictional narrative was highly satisfying to watch and was a brilliant move to stress the importance, trauma, and split nature that lies at the core of the film: this was by far my favorite scene from the film. Focusing on childhood trauma, suicide, and remembering, the film reminds me in many was of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The acting was great, no complaints. Natalie Dormer did a superb job. In the end, I enjoyed The Forest and would recommend giving it a watch. While those seeking thrills alone may walk away disappointed, this is creepy, psychological horror thriller that will likely leave you satisfied.
SO, what’s this movie so afraid of? Apart from the ‘cabin fever’ subjective psychosis of being alone with your thoughts in a forest in Japan, I think the film is terrified that childhood trauma leaves a deep stain on the soul, and, unfortunately, children sometimes have a hard time not growing up into their parents.