‘The Forest’
Director:
Jason Zada
Stars: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

As Sara, a woman searching for her lost twin amongst the wild in “The Forest,” Natalie Dormer is fiercely intelligent enough to make you think she’s not just another dumb horror movie protagonist. The “Game of Thrones” actress might even periodically convince you this is a smart movie — a horror that, more than most, is really about something. You don’t have to peer too far under the text to find a sad look at grief and trauma and sibling love. For awhile, especially as night falls, you expect Sara to find ghosts or demons or ghouls; instead she finds a spiritual manifestation of her childhood tragedy — “Solaris” with trees.

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That’s a lofty comparison, and “The Forest” sometimes seems up to the task. It’s also muddled, overly taken with cheap boos and not nearly creepy enough. The good parts put up a good fight, chief among them Dormer, who plays American professional Sara, whose sis, Jess (a brunette Dormer), has gone missing after entering the haunting (if not haunted) Aokigahara forest in Japan. Sara hightails it out there, intent on going in there with a local guide. Along the way she picks up Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a strapping travel journo who seems genuinely nice — maybe too genuinely nice.

“The Forest” doesn’t go in the obvious directions. It even largely avoids its most dodgy issue: milking for mere spooky thrills the real-life “Sea of Trees,” whose contents are so dense that some disappear into it to take their lives. (As it happens, we’ll soon be getting Gus Van Sant’s much-mocked suicide drama “Sea of Trees,” which was also not actually shot inside it.) It takes its subject seriously, even though the build-up succumbs to some light though hardly deal-breaking “Lost in Translation”-style “isn’t Japan weird?” Ugly Americanism.

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It isn’t messing around and, at least thanks to Dormer, it plays its seriousness seriously. She even does the miraculous and makes some knucklescraping decisions more like stubbornness than foolishness. When she finds Jess’ abandoned tent and rebuffs her petrified guide, insisting on spending a long, dark night in some seriously spooky woods, we can see she can’t be swayed, even as we know she’s doomed. (That this lone woman spends it with Aiden, a male stranger, is less defensible.)

But even with Sara’s increasing unease around her increasingly suspicious companion, director Jason Zada has trouble mounting tension, and one patch of the forest quickly starts to look like any other. When Sara begins having visions, they’re done as cheap boos, and fails to snowball into a coherent mythology. It tries to make the scares organic to not only the story but the ideas bubbling underneath, but the writing is too sloppy, and it can’t quite make the connection. It’s a truly noble failure — a movie that holds together, if at all, due to the considerable effort of a lead who deserved the superior film it seems to think it is.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge