‘The Woods’ review: Netflix murder mystery is watchable, but profoundly forgettable


The Netflix adaptation of Harlan Coben’s novel The Woods, for all its attempts at artistry, falls short of almost all of the multitude of things it hopes to be. One sees endless swathes of mise en scène, shot in low angles such that the titular woods appear to be looming, dwarfing the audience. You imagine that the creators were trying to imbibe a perpetual sense of doom with the foreboding background score, blue and grey light filtering through branches of trees, textures of trunks, sweeping aerial views. However, instead of impressing upon the audience the prospect of inescapability, the woods remain merely a stylised piece of caricature.

The series follows the protagonist, Pawel (Grzegorz Damięcki), in his quest to find his sister who was one of the two teenagers who went missing from a Polish summer camp in the woods, along with two others who were found murdered. The central question that pops up in what feels like almost every half hour, is whether or not Pawel’s sister Kamila is alive. Yet, her character is so under-developed that the only way you might care about her is through her significance for Pawel, and even of that, not much can be said.

In this quest, nearly every task performed by the characters is undercut by attempts at inducing dread through the background score. This happens at such lengths that discoveries and revelations can hardly be told apart in their scales of magnitude. It is an immense drawback to have in almost hour-long episodes, always bordering on monotony.

The six-episode mini-series is replete with tropes: the seemingly non-committal, rather unassuming protagonist who turns out to be something of a hero; the reckless friend; the girl he never quite forgets; the trauma from a dysfunctional family and the survivor’s guilt that drives him. These work well, aided by powerful, understated performances by the lead actors. The protagonist Pawel is embroiled in conflict as you would expect a hero to be. The series, however, cannot decide if it wants to be a murder mystery or a drama with profoundly dramatic characters. Consequently, it fails to meet either mark. Emotions are half-baked and one never gets to invest in the personal lives of the characters.

The Woods

  • Creator: Harlan Coben
  • Cast: Grzegorz Damięcki, Agnieszka Grochowska, Hubert Miłkowski, Wiktoria Filus
  • No. of episodes: 6
  • Storyline: A prosecutor goes on a quest to find his sister, who was one of two teenagers that went missing from a summer camp 25 years ago, and could possibly be a homicide victim.

The Woods also takes an inordinate amount of time to set contexts and scenes, flitting between two timelines: 1994 and 2019. The summer of 1994, introduced to us in the pilot episode titled Loss Of Innocence, sets up a disturbia of sorts: with teenagers, fizzy drinks, vivid sands and waters that foreshadow impending doom. One does get involved with the characters of younger Pawel, played by a fresh and restrained Hubert Miłkowski, and his girlfriend Laura over time. But the same cannot be said of the current timeline even though the characters are believable versions of their younger selves. This is much to the credit of the actors and not the plot itself.

The emotions of the 2019 timeline are a curious mess. It appears that plot points are tacked onto each other clumsily to gain brownie points in drama. Estranged lovers thrown together by an unsolved murder connecting the two timelines, a teary-eyed protagonist mourning the fact that he loses “everyone he loves”: meant to induce empathy, but they elicit no such response, and you don’t really care whether the adult versions of Pawel and Laura find their way back to each other.

The failings of The Woods are far too many. In 2019, prosecutor Pawel deals with a rape case, the portrayal of which is unforgivably insensitive. While he fights off intimidation and extortion to get the survivor justice, there are scenes where he shames her for a tattoo on her waist that he says “works to her disadvantage”!

Ultimately, the ending of the mystery might frustrate the viewer as it offers no catharsis. The artistic merit of that is debatable: life does not work in flourishes of clever, motivated conclusions. The ending is plausible; there is no attempt at outsmarting the audience as in, say, BBC’s Sherlock. The protagonist is fallible throughout and finds himself ensnared by circumstance more often than he wields his agency to induce them. The answer might be in the seeking.

Though the series does not pretend to be a social commentary, these mistakes at this socio-political juncture remain inexcusable. The entire rape case is thrown together clumsily to set up Pawel as the hero against the world and once that purpose is served, it is as hastily resolved. The anti-Semitism faced by Laura and her father, too, is used as a plot point that is abandoned after being addressed in two or three scenes.

In all, The Woods with its efficient cinematography and production quality, is stylistically sound, but profoundly forgettable.

The Woods is currently streaming on Netflix

 



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