Ever had something disappear, when you know full well it was there just a moment ago?
The Forgotten proffers a decidedly sinister explanation for what goes on when that happens but ups the ante considerably. In the case of Telly Paretta (Julianne Moore), it's not just anything that's disappeared, but all evidence that her dead son, Sam, ever existed, to the point where no one - not her psychiatrist, not her best friend, not even her husband - admits to remembering him at all.
Telly clearly has issues dealing with her loss, and one of the deft touches in the script by Gerald DiPego (Instinct, Message in a Bottle) is that it leaves open the possibility that she just may be losing it. Within the movie's first five minutes, it's established that Telly is obsessed with her son's memory, lingering over his dresser drawers every day, smelling his baseball glove, staring at photographs of a seemingly idyllic time.
But suddenly one day (and the film moves quickly into the meat of its plot), everything changes. Her son's image has vanished from all their family portraits, his scrapbooks are blank pages, his dad insists the couple never had a child. Even the newspaper accounts of the plane crash that killed him are no longer extant. Frantic, Telly runs out of the house and goes searching for some tangible relic of Sam's presence.
What she finds is Ash (Dominic West), whose daughter, Lauren, died in the same crash. He, too, denies either child ever existed, but Telly senses something is wrong. Ash has become an alcoholic who won't even say the name "Lauren." Convinced memories of his daughter must still be somewhere inside him, Telly pushes and prods - and eventually jogs a few shards of memory loose.
But by then, agents from the National Security Agency have shown up, with all sorts of mysterious nefariousness on their minds. They're after Telly and Ash, but why? What are the feds doing, wasting their time on a couple of disturbed people who fantasize about having had children? And what's the deal with this emotionless, granite-jawed guy who keeps showing up at the tensest moments?
Director Joseph Ruben (Dreamscape) suffuses The Forgotten with a plethora of overhead shots, bird's-eye views of great swarms of people heading hither and yon - the better to accentuate the seeming arbitrariness of what has happened to Telly and the isolation she feels as the only person, among all who once knew Sam, to still have him in memory.
Moore, who shows much better taste in her choice of dramatic than comedic material (her last film was the execrable Laws of Attraction), is in top form as a woman determined not to let go of her son, regardless of the cost. In a part where maniacal could have been called for, Moore maintains a riveting resolve; obviously, she's grief-stricken, but she refuses to allow an emotional meltdown. You can see the struggle in her gestures, the strength in her eyes and the passion in her tears, which she allows to flow without ever letting them overwhelm her.
Less persuasive are West, who's convincing as neither a drunk nor a hero (his face just looks perpetually contorted), and Gary Sinise as Telly's psychiatrist, who never seems sincere, certainly not trustworthy (making it hard to understand why he's the only person she does trust). Better is Anthony Edwards as Telly's stolid husband ("He doesn't argue," she says at one point, "he negotiates"), eliciting sympathy for his character that only makes our take on Telly harder to pin down.
There are times when The Forgotten gets away from itself, throwing in "gotchas" that have no business being there (including cinema's most ineffectual car crash). And the malevolent force behind all these manipulations never quite comes into focus; if it's as all-powerful as the plot suggests, why doesn't it exercise that power more?
It's also true that things start careening in the final act, as Telly and Ash's questions are answered with ... even more questions. By tale's end, nothing is exactly explained - at least not in the sense that everything makes sense. Instead, one of those all-encompassing explanations is delivered, a vague, oh-so-mysterious payoff that's more a comma than a period. And Moore's final moment of transcendent strength seems way too easy (the movie's more at fault than she is).
Still, this is a movie that earns its suspense and validates its emotions, especially its examination of the bond between mother and child. Thanks primarily to Moore's performance and Ruben's taut direction, The Forgotten shouldn't soon live up to its title.
Starring Julianne Moore, Dominic West, Gary Sinise
Directed by Joseph Ruben
Rated PG-13 (intense thematic material, some violence and brief language)
Released by Columbia Pictures
Time 93 minutes
Sun Score ***