An early shot of Telly Paretta (Julianne Moore), in The Forgotten, has her looking very, very forlorn. As she sits on a swing, alone amid swirling leaves, an oddly ominous wind flutters her dark red hair and black coat. The camera works its way around her, trees blurred in the foreground, such that the seasonal colors not only match her hair, but also suggest her sad accord with her autumnal surroundings. The next scene is worse: she’s standing at a dresser, appealing to a framed photo of a young boy: “Sam,” she says quietly, before slowly opening drawers and fondling their contents: a baseball glove, a scrapbook, a journal.
Telly goes through this ritual again and again in The Forgotten, as she works to remember her son, killed some 14 months earlier in a plane crash. In this first instance, the voice of her shrink, Dr. Munce (Gary Sinise), intrudes over her softly illuminated closeup, asking how long she spent “at the dresser” this week compared to last. As he explains (a lot), she’s suffering PTSD, dealing with “memory slips,” and on occasion, “manufacturing” memories. She resists Munce’s suggestions that she ease into a next stage, half-joking that her husband Jim (Anthony Edwards) says she has a “death grip on the past.”
Telly takes it as a kind of mission to hang onto her son, even as she suspects that Jim is losing touch. And she sees it as a particular challenge when she finds a family photo that suddenly and inexplicably no longer includes Sam, accusing Jim of changing it deliberately. He looks at her woefully and calls the doc, and together they break it to her: there never was a Sam, she’s manufactured the whole nine years, following a miscarriage.
Though The Forgotten ostensibly leaves room for doubting Telly, for believing Jim over her, you actually tend to identify with her from frame one. And so, as she defies the men’s suggestions that she “take it easy,” going so far as to run from her home and rush away in her red Volvo, Jim and Munce are looking mighty untrustworthy. She heads on over to see the significantly named Ash (Dominic West), her Brooklyn neighbor and self-medicating father of girl on the same flight as her son. At first, he takes the other men’s approach, thinking she’s crazy and calling the cops to take her away (this after she rips down an entire room’s wallpaper to reveal his non-existent daughter’s fanciful drawings). Pushing their handcuffed wacko out onto the sidewalk, the officers are perfectly willing to give her up to a couple of conveniently-appearing suits who identify themselves as “NSA.”
What does the National Security Agency want with Telly? And how does Ash, suddenly remembering his daughter, manage to run downstairs, kick out a car window, and fight off one of the agents? Better, how does Telly outrun another supposedly well-trained agent of the U.S government? If you haven’t been asking consistency questions before now, this bust-out scene makes it impossible not to. Devastated parents turned action heroes: the image might make the current administration think twice before it rebuffs the 9/11 families again.
In fact, as The Forgotten‘s plot turns sillier by the minute, its politics turn increasingly intriguing, if confused. Meeting up again at that swingset, Ash and Telly resolve to find their children, suddenly realizing that they “feel” the kids are still alive. Why else would Ash and Telly be pursued by scary-looking government agents unless they had stumbled on a vast conspiracy to abduct children and torment parents? In this us-and-them breakdown, the girls are definitely on the right side (Ash counting as an honorary girl because he’s unreservedly vulnerable and emotional, much more invested in his child than his ex-wife, demonstrated in part by his alcoholism, which he sheds instantly, right when Telly insists he do so).
The other girl on the case is dauntless Detective Ann Pope (Alfre Woodard), who instantly raises questions concerning Ash and Telly’s remarkably similar “delusions.” Her tough-minded suspicions and welcome sense-making don’t bode well for Ann, of course. Still, she delivers a few entertaining moments, challenging the feds, to whom everyone else seems perfectly willing to bow down without a question: “You like this part, don’t you, the part where you get to take away my case?” Ann won’t let go, insisting that for the purposes of this case, without state lines crossed, she “is new York,” and so they’d just better back off. They won’t, and she’ll pay for her insolence and mighty self-identification, but she offers respite from the willful blindness of everyone else; as Ann sees through the shoddy plot machinations, a brief point of viewer identification (a point of rationality that, truth be told, further undercuts the rest of the film’s structure).
Frequently silly and stunningly reductive, The Forgotten ends with a swift descent into utter illogic, involving aliens, abductions, and incoherent technologies. Still, the movie makes an intriguing proposition, given the current political climate. The movie posits memory as a willful act, a decision claiming a moral high ground (even if one villain deems Telly’s faith in her son’s existence a profound and somehow genetic puzzlement, that is, “a connection between mother and child like an invisible tissue”). With this X-Files-y metaphor, the movie makes its perversely emotional case for post-trauma recollections, as means to collective and personal “healing.” As Telly refuses to let go, she is able to change her apparent reality, or rather, break through to the “real” reality that such a traumatized individual might prefer to have.
Perhaps it’s in the air, this desire to manage memory, even to refashion the past, with all the discomforting apparent realities out there. The occupation of Iraq, “war on terror,” and U.S. presidential campaign are framed by media of all stripes and filtered through faulty memories, historical revisions, and outright lies. In The Forgotten, the ethical terms are laid out: it’s good to remember, fervently, to hang onto that connective “tissue,” and it’s weak and bad to forget, or worse, to succumb to the memory engineering by abject evildoers. While such sides are insultingly simplistic, the stakes seem disturbingly relevant.