But you can't discount its finale, which arrives after a brief discussion about the bond ("the tissue," someone says) that connects a mother to a child and just what it takes to rip it asunder or make it disappear completely. (Notice it's not between father and child; the movie makes the case that that particular connection is too easily corrupted and obliterated.) The rest of the world has forgotten that Telly Paretta (Julianne Moore) had a son named Sam. In fact, her best friend (Friends' Jessica Hecht), her therapist (Gary Sinise), even her husband Jim (played by ER's Anthony Edwards) insist he never existed at all. But Telly, branded a nut by her loved ones, knows otherwise. Why? Because he wasn't just there, in a nursery or on a playground swing or in some picture kept in a scrapbook, but because he was once inside her.
How that message is finally revealed is at once subtle and jarring; you're simply not expecting it in the midst of a movie that constantly flies off the rails and threatens to devolve into a mediocre X-Files episode. But it's explicit nonetheless, and even a little poignant. Would that it were in a more substantive movie less concerned with scaring you than with moving you.
Until that finale, Telly spends the whole film searching for nine-year-old Sam (Christopher Kovaleski), whom she believes died in a plane crash 14 months earlier. No one else acknowledges his existence, but we know otherwise, because we've seen the towheaded child in flashbacks, on videotape, in newspaper clippings; we've been in his room, where Telly lingers every day to sort through his belongings. We've even seen Sam in a picture with his mother and father, till one day he vanishes from the snapshot, à la Marty McFly's family in Back to the Future. Other pictures are altered, and Sam vanishes completely from the video. "They were always blank," insists Jim, who tells Telly she's suffering a nervous breakdown after delivering the child stillborn. Jim and Sinise's Dr. Munce try to make Telly believe hers were all manufactured memories born of horrific trauma -- "paramnesia," Munce says, during which the memory can deceive you into believing hallucinated fantasies really occurred.
For a few minutes, The Forgotten acts as though it wants to be taken seriously, suggesting it could have been a moving meditation on grief and longing and the devastating power of remembrance. Ruben and screenwriter Gerald Di Pego, who wrote the hankie-wanky Message in a Bottle, depict Jim and Telly's marriage as strained to the point of broken; she can't leave the house, he can't tolerate her moping, and each seems lonelier with the other than when apart.
But because this is Julianne Moore making a Hollywood movie and not one of her forays into indiedom, the audience never doubts that her memories are real; this isn't based on a Jorge Luis Borges short story. Besides, the paramnesiac story line is ditched very, very early, and we've already seen the coming attractions in which the roof gets sucked off a house while Moore and Dominic West (as Ash Correll, who forgets and then remembers he, too, lost a daughter in the same crash that took Moore's kid) are interrogating a bad guy. So we know going in this isn't the stuff of existential, emotional drama, but the makings of familiar sci-fi, in which something wicked this way comes...but from where?
If you're in a generous mood, you might be tempted to view The Forgotten as a devious makeover of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with Moore in the Melinda Dillon role and Kovaleski as the kid who vanishes into parts unknown. The Forgotten doesn't have the same generous view of the government Steven Spielberg's movie did, nor does it share its sense of wide-eyed wonder and optimism. Spielberg was all about warming the heart, while Ruben prefers instead to squeeze it with cheap thrills and tiny frights, none of which are more effective than a masterfully shot scene in which federal agents crash their car into Telly and Ash's getaway ride. Ultimately only Moore, with her eyes always half-damp and voice half-cracked and body language half-mad, keeps the movie on the ground, when it too often threatens to fly into the thin air, where the audience would laugh it off the screen. She's a real mother, a force to be reckoned with in a movie that begs to be forgotten.