Any thriller making my heart jump once gets my attention. Twice and I'm convinced that any of the usual shortcuts taken to cause such a reaction _ for example, loud, sudden noises or abrupt entrances (and exits) _ are worth it. Make me jump three times, as director Joseph Ruben does with The Forgotten, and I'll forgive almost any cheap trick a filmmaker wants to pull from his or her sleeve.
The Forgotten is a genuinely creepy movie so convincing in its first half-hour that the next 50 minutes, when things get preposterous, work very well, indeed. Such brevity is a golden commodity in these circumstances, without lulls or backtracking that would allow doubt to expose faults. Those pop up a few minutes after the fadeout. But for the time spent in the theater, Ruben spins a nifty yarn.
It helps to have a talented actor such as Julianne Moore to lead viewers through the coincidences, stunts and things that make you go, "What?" Moore plays Telly Paretta, a mother grieving for her 9-year-old son, who was killed in an airplane crash. One look in Moore's eyes and we're convinced of this character's pain.
Her psychologist (Gary Sinise) and husband (Anthony Edwards) aren't as certain. They tell Telly she's suffering from paramnesia, a condition that causes people to imagine entire lives apart from reality. But Telly has pictures, mementos and, above all, memories. Or does she? Ruben and screenwriter Gerald Di Pego quickly make us question what seems so real. Perhaps a telephone call is a one-sided delusion, or a gust of wind just an imaginary embellishment to grief. We're not sure, and The Forgotten is better for it.
Our suspension of disbelief is shaken a bit when Telly bonds with Ash Correll (Dominic West), a former pro hockey player whose daughter _ Telly claims _ also died in that plane crash. He initially denies ever having a daughter, then Telly reveals evidence triggering his memories. Together they learn whether they're insane or becoming aware. And why are those National Security agents tracking them with such sinister intent?
Eventually the screenplay digs such a deep, neat hole for itself that only an extraordinary fantasy could pull it out. That happens in The Forgotten, with a reason for all this strangeness that might cause some viewers to give up on the plot. Personally, I chose to surrender to a briskly paced drama that kept me on edge so the next heart thump didn't hurt as much as the first.
Ruben is the kind of filmmaker who deals with nonsense in such a serious fashion that it can't be dismissed. His 1987 breakthrough, The Stepfather, is a model of snuff dramatics that redefined the slasher genre. Sleeping With the Enemy in 1991 was a key point in Julia Roberts' career despite its dependency on tired domestic violence mechanics. The Forgotten relies upon child endangerment and a film genre that won't be revealed (but isn't one of my favorites). Yet the movie works.
This is the kind of popcorn flick that doesn't usually garner awards attention, but Moore's performance should be an exception. Sometimes the mark of acting greatness is overcoming material that could easily be hooted off the screen. That's what Moore does, and that's what The Forgotten is. And because of her, it isn't.
DIRECTOR: Joseph Ruben
CAST: Julianne Moore, Gary Sinise, Dominic West, Alfre Woodard, Anthony Edwards, Linus Roache
SCREENPLAY: Gerald Di Pego
RATING: PG-13; violence, brief profanity, mature themes
RUNNING TIME: 89 min.