The fantasy thriller The Forgotten purports to celebrate the power of motherly love. But I began suspecting its real mission a moment after Julianne Moore's first smile.
The actress plays Telly, an educated, affluent New Yorker whose compulsion to fondle the memory of her dead 10-year-old son has her in therapy, and in conflict with her husband (Anthony Edwards). Telly is clinically depressed; one night, forgetting herself briefly, she smiles, and an instant later discovers that a family picture that once contained young Sam, who died in an airplane crash 14 months earlier, no longer does. Soon her husband, her therapist (Gary Sinise), and indeed the entire world are denying that the boy ever existed, insisting instead that he was always a product of her imagination.
But Telly (-kinetic? -vision?) knows she's right. She coaxes an alcoholic ex-hockey player (Dominic West) into remembering the young daughter he'd forgotten, who disappeared on the same flight, and together they tumble into an X-Files-style conspiracy of altered documents, taciturn trenchcoated g-men, and possible paranormal phenomena.
With repeated cries of "Where are the children?" The Forgotten is clumsily scripted, and directed with a heavy hand by Joseph Ruben (Sleeping With the Enemy). Its scant pleasures include West's gruff charm and the skills of Moore, who's made a respectable career out of damaged women; her Telly gets it both ways, with the glamor of madness and the virtue of lonely sanity. For those beguiled by the cinema of sensation, there's also a pretty good shock visual effect, though it loses steam when repeated, and by the third go-round is actually kind of funny.
But The Forgotten is interestingly bad. On one level, it partakes of cinema's digital-age obsession with erased or fabricated memory (see The Matrix, Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, etc). On another, with its vanished airplanes and exhortations to never forget, it's a post-9/11 footnote (and unfortunately, as such, advocates torture as a research expedient).
But what's really buried under the layers of metaphor of Gerald DiPego's script, with its heroine desperate to get everyone to buy into her version of the past? The answer lies in Moore's initial smile, which cues the commencement of her ordeal: She must be punished for forgetting, for ceasing to grieve, and her only possible reward is to be proven correct in her suspicion that Sam isn't dead at all. And really, he can't be. In the new-age fields trodden by The Forgotten, what must be disproven -- after being wrapped in voguish paranoia about lives disappearing down the memory hole -- is the very reality of death. That, and the fact that you should always listen to your mother. Hallmark'll love it.