Vastly more focused and interesting than director Gus Van Sant’s similarly themed 2015 misfire “The Sea of Trees,” the black-and-white stalker drama “The Forest of Lost Souls” is a nasty and impressive little thriller that goes about its business with ruthless cinematic efficiency. This notable debut from writer-director José Pedro Lopes, which world-preemed at Fantasporto and was featured in the long-running and gonzo-themed Freak Me Out sidebar of the Sydney Festival, is ensured of a long and happy specialty fest life.
In the fictional, mythical woods somewhere between Portugal and Spain that attracts those contemplating taking their own lives, well-to-do dad Ricardo Alves (Jorge Mota) arrives grief-stricken over the suicide of his daughter Irene (Lilia Lopes) in a foreboding pre-credit sequence. But before he can do the deed, he meets the acerbic Carolina (Daniela Love), who mocks him for his chosen method (a knife) and for failing to bring a suicide note (he asks to borrow pen and paper, and she obliges).
The two banter combatively, and it becomes clear that Ricardo is determined to die. As for Carolina, she professes to be a frequent visitor to the woods due to a nagging indecision, but she isn’t shy about assisting Ricardo in a shockingly unexpected manner.
It turns out Carolina has a more ambitious agenda. Using Ricardo’s phone and car, she stalks his surviving family: wife Joana (Ligia Roque), younger daughter Filipa (Mafalda Banquart) and even Filipa’s boyfriend Tiago (Tiago Jácome).
From the darkly comic banter between Ricardo and Carolina in the forest to the coolly casual relentless pace of the subsequent stalking, Lopes exhibits an admirably economic control of the material and its telling. Refreshingly, the film isn’t much interested in splatter, eventually evolving during a trim 71 minutes into a Haneke-like exploration of malignancy and tension. In retrospect, the remorselessly ruthless Carolina could well have killed the “lost souls”” whose bodies she and Ricardo pass.
Love brings a cool authority to the part, and Mota plays Ricardo with a poignant bewilderment that looms over the proceedings. Francisco Lobo’s velvety visuals are nicely complemented by Emanuel Grácio’s lush, often pulsing score.