Let’s take a minute to recognize Julianne Moore. Sure, she gets critical acclaim all the time, and she’s been nominated for (and, in some cases, won) all kinds of awards. I still don’t think she gets the credit she deserves. Moore is quite possibly the most exciting actress working today. There’s something about her that just glows on-screen, no matter what part she plays; her scorching talent makes it impossible to look away. I eagerly anticipate any performance she gives. It is somewhat dispiriting, then, to see Moore acting her heart out in a movie like The Forgotten. She delivers a heartfelt, affecting performance in a movie that doesn’t know what to do with it.
Moore plays Telly Paretta, a mother grieving the death of her 9-year old son Sam, who was killed in a plane crash sixteen months prior. Telly has a daily ritual of visiting his bedroom, thumbing through some photo albums, and watching a home video of Sam. Her husband Jim (Anthony Edwards) and therapist, Dr. Munce (Gary Sinise), tell her that she’s not coping with the loss, but Telly argues that there is no coping.
Then something strange happens. Telly wakes up one day and the pictures of Sam are all gone. The video tapes are blank. Jim is suddenly claiming they never had a son. Dr. Munce informs Telly that she’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and has invented a life that doesn’t exist. She doesn’t believe it; the memories of Sam are too strong.
As a last resort, she turns to Ash (Dominic West), the father of Sam’s best friend Lauren, who was also killed in the crash. He claims never to have had a daughter but, under Telly’s influence, some memories come flooding back. Just around this time, agents from the National Security Agency show up to question both Telly and Ash. As they flee, Telly ducks down an alleyway, emerges from the other side, looks around and…well, I have to stop right there.
Sometimes I can pinpoint the exact moment a movie stops working. The scene I have just halfway described is the moment when The Forgotten stopped working for me. The story’s early scenes are very powerful. We feel a connection to this character. We empathize with her grief. We become emotionally involved in her story. It is sad if she lost a son; it is perhaps even more sad if she never really had one to begin with. These early moments pull us in and make us care greatly about Telly.
Then comes The Moment. All I will say is that The Moment sends The Forgotten down an otherworldly road from which it cannot turn back, no matter how desperately it needs to. What starts off so powerfully only gets sillier and sillier as the screenplay goes deeper into the mystery of what happened to the children. Perhaps the movie would have worked better if it had taken a less realistic tone from the start. We might then be prepared for the absurd direction in which we’re eventually taken. But because the film starts off so believably, its eventual transition into “Outer Limits” territory seems dishonest. I found myself yearning for a more plausible explanation, one that would provide a conclusion that had some basis in humanity.
I noticed that certain things don’t pay off. The subplot with Telly’s husband is confusing because he eventually just disappears from the film, even when it seems obvious that he should be coming back. The utility of the NSA agents is left unresolved too. And what are we to make of Alfre Woodard, who plays that creakiest of movie characters - the cop who instinctively believes the heroine no matter how ridiculous her story seems? Even the central mystery never gets a full resolution. The how and why of the situation is maddeningly unclear. If you’re going to pull something this bizarro out of your hat, you’d better do a darn good job explaining it.
The saving grace of The Forgotten is Julianne Moore. She gives a phenomenal performance, even in the middle of all this nonsense. Coincidentally, I’m currently reading a book called Watching Movies in which New York Times writer Rick Lyman sits down with various celebrities to watch a movie of their choosing, something that has influenced them. Julianne Moore is one of the book’s subjects, and she selected Rosemary’s Baby to watch. In the piece, she talks about being affected by the lead character’s devotion to her child in the midst of horrific circumstances. I think this probably goes a long way toward explaining why Moore chose to act in The Forgotten; she wanted to bring that kind of vibe to a modern audience. There isn’t a doubt that Moore succeeds. It’s just that no one else involved in the production seemed to share her ambition.
( out of four)
The Forgotten is rated PG-13 for intense thematic material, some violence and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.
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