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What is more painful, the melancholy of remembering a lost loved one, or the guilt that comes from forgetting? This is one of the questions raised in Joseph Ruben's THE FORGOTTEN, a surprisingly intelligent and pretty effective horror film with dramatic and fantasy-inspired overtones.
Julianne Moore plays Telly. Things are rough for Telly. For one thing, she's named after a Muppet, which can't be easy. More tragic still, she is mourning the loss of her son. Months ago, she put him on a plane with several of his friends so they could go on a camping expedition. The plane crashed, killing all children on board. Since then, she has wavered between numbness and despair. She stands at his old bedroom dresser everyday. She looks at old videos. It is a tragedy that must effect a mother like no other. A piece of herself, the greatest piece in her opinion, has died and she can't bring herself to live again.
Everyone around her would like her to get on with things. They seem concerned at times and callous at others. Her therapist (Gary Sinise) worries about her mental health. Her husband (Anthony Edwards - ER) knows their marriage will probably never be the same again. Still, she cannot bring herself to move on. For one thing, how does one move on from something like that? Very easy for the rest of us who have not had to face the loss of a child and mothers have the greatest bond of them all. Which leads us to the other problem, the issue of basic human frailty. There is no question that Telly is damaged, perhaps damaged beyond all repair. But the connection to her son is what keeps her human in many ways. If she tries to go on with her life, what will happen to that shred of her own self? Will she ever be the same again, ever be someone she could recognize when looking in the mirror? In one of the most meaningful moments, she quietly pleads with her husband to understand. "Please don't make me let go," she says.
And that's when things get really bad. The image of her son is gone from their family portrait. Many of her son's belongings are gone and the videotapes she used to watch over and over again now show only static. She confronts her husband on this unforgivable act. How could he erase his own child from his life and more to the point, how could he take him away from his grieving mother? But that is when her husband drops the bombshell. Her son did not die in a plane crash. In fact, she never had a son.
Her husband and therapist try to explain the situation for her. Telly had had a miscarriage years before and was unable to get over it. In her mind, she manufactured the idea of having a son who was taken in violent plane crash. She saw his picture when there was no one there, she looked at videotapes of family outings that never happened. They had intended to ease her back into reality, but had no idea the realization would be so sudden.
Telly spends precious little time doubting herself. She can feel a connection to her lost son, even if everyone else doubts her. Not knowing where else to turn, she confronts her neighbor Ash (Dominic West - CHICAGO, THE WIRE) who had also lost his daughter in the crash and has been an alcoholic ever since the tragedy. He is still a well-meaning but basically pathetic drunk, but he too insists that he never had a daughter. So, the question arises - is Telly crazy after all? Is all of this an illusion? Worse yet, what if it isn't? Who could manufacture such an elaborate ruse and why would they do such a thing?
Ruben is an old hat at the horror game, but to be honest he has been a seriously underwhelming director for a long time. His early film DREAMSCAPE was an interesting sci-fi/horror film with a great political conspiracy storyline and the unfortunate timing of being released the same year as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Later, THE STEPFATHER took the basic outline of both THE SHINING and the evening newspaper and created an terrifying ride. It was the ultimate domestic nightmare and boasted great performances by Terry O'Quinn and Jill Shoelen (Whatever happened to her anyway?). Likewise, TRUE BELIEVER is a criminally underrated legal thriller that confronted the clash between 1960s-era ideology with 1980s greed and compromise.
After that, Ruben made not one other film I enjoyed. Despite aiding in the launch of Julia Roberts, SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY was a very standard thriller that didn't pay off as much as I had hoped. THE GOOD SON, starring a notoriously miscast Macaulay Culkin is just like THE BAD SEED (Even riffing off the title) if that film were made by eighth graders. MONEY TRAIN is still the worst film Woody Harrelson has made and remember, I foolishly paid to see PALMETTO.
Yes, it looked like it was over for Ruben, the entire decade of the 1990s being a lean time for the once-promising director. It has been six years since he's directed anything at all. But this is why I want to stress what an improvement THE FORGOTTEN is. Ruben seems to be back in full force here. It might not be as great as TRUE BELIEVER (his best film) but it's certainly a creative little shocker that works on a number of levels. Actually, he seems to have been taking notes from another successful horror director, M. Night Shayamalan. Like his films, there is a lot of talk and even more twists. These are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations. They have a slow, gradual but satisfying acceptance of their situation. As for twists, there is the eventual uncovering of just what the hell is going on. But that too is punctuated by one sudden jolt in the film that should have you doing a double-take.
What separates this from Ruben's 1990s output is that it has an abundance of what his thrillers from that era lacked - humanity. Moore is an amazing actress who has excelled in everything from MAGNOLIA to FAR FROM HEAVEN to THE HOURS. She has been short-changed in most of her big Hollywood roles (HANNIBAL notwithstanding), but she is given a meaty role here, one she undertakes with all the care and ease of a mother cradling a newborn child. The entire film hinges on Telly's emotional state, her love for her lost child. Telly is single-minded in her purpose. It would be heavy-handed in the hands of most actresses but that's what makes Moore such an amazing talent. Likewise, West is a nice discovery. His character of Ash is not the mere male counterpart, but a throughly troubled individual suffering from similar feelings of guilt.
Ruben also keeps things moving. Although there is a slow build at first, things really heat up when we start to get a clearer picture of just what is going on. At one point, Moore is hiding as her concerned friends and family scour the street for her. She is convinced there is something wrong with them not her and she is afraid to be found. In many ways, it reminded me of Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams trying to hide from the pod people in Phillip Kauffman's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS remake.
The ending is problematic. The new DVD released by Columbia/TriStar tries to correct this. In the theatrical version, there is a commercial payoff full of razzle dazzle. It has a few satisfying moments but seems like too much of a change of pace from the classy first 75 minutes. An alternate ending lacks a lot of the oomph but is much more dramatically satisfying.
There are flaws in the film, but they are flaws I am hesitant to point out. This is not one of the greatest films of 2004, although it is pretty darn good. See, this is the type of film where I have a laundry list of things I would like to point out or comment on. But detailing many of these aspects would risk giving part of the ultra-secretive plot away. Everything revolves around a new twist. In short, the film is a bitch to review because I find myself in the position of talking about it not not really talking about it.
Still, THE FORGOTTEN is a solid rental. It's got the drama and suspense many more classically inclined fans of the genre complain there is too little of in this CGI-obsessed environment. It's the type of horror film that transcends the quick popcorn fulfillment that I admit I'm a big fan of. Instead, it's the type of film that asks questions of the viewer, questions you will find yourself pondering for some time. And that, as they say, is entertainment.