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‘The Forest’: Psychological thriller finds a scary path, stays on it

Anyone who has ever experienced that horrible feeling of desperation while being lost in the woods — especially as the dark shadows of evening begin to fall — will understand the sense of increasing panic director Jason Zada has infused into his intriguing feature film debut. This movie does a nice job of exploring what fear can do to us, and how determination to overcome our fears can lead us to make poor decisions.

“The Forest” is actually based on a real place: the eerie and forbidding Aokigahara Forest in Japan. The 14-square-mile dense woods, lying at the northwest base of Japan’s famed Mount Fuji, has an ominous reputation as the “Suicide Forest” — a place where people come to take their own lives.

In an extremely well-crafted dual performance, “Game of Thrones” and “The Hunger Games” star Natalie Dormer plays twin sisters, Sara and Jess Price. Though they share a birthday, the two siblings could not be more different, allowing Dormer to showcase a number of different twists and turns of her acting talents. After Jess — who has been teaching English in a Tokyo school — mysteriously disappears, Sara decides she has to travel to Japan to find her, over the strong objections of her husband Rob (Eoin Macken).

Sara’s mission leads her to an inn on the outskirts of the Aokigahara where she meets an attractive yet mysterious stranger named Aiden, who describes himself as a travel writer interested in exploring the forbidding forest. Played by “Chicago Fire” star Taylor Kinney, Aiden is immediately a bit suspect and we are wary of him from the beginning. That said, it is nice to see Kinney play a character quite different from his familiar TV role as Kelly Severide — and he does it well. As the two travelers venture into the Aokigahara, we soon learn exactly why their Japanese guide keeps telling them to always “stay on the path.”

“The Forest” is a solid combination of psychological horror and outright physical danger as we see Sara spending the night in the scary forest where she absolutely is convinced her sister would never have gone to kill herself. While the musical score is a bit too obvious — clearly signaling when we next will be shocked out of our seats — that’s a small criticism that does not take away from director Zada’s deft handling of the storytelling here.

In the end, this is Dormer’s film from start to finish and her performances — as both twins — are impressive. With a nice, unexpected twist at the end, “The Forest” delivers as a healthy dose of psychological cinematic terror and an impressive first feature directing effort.

[s3r star=3/4]

Gramercy Pictures presents a film directed by Jason Zada and written by Sarah Cornwell and Nick Antosca. Running time: 95 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content and image). Opens Friday at local theaters.