After the moderate critical success of both Safe and The Stranger, Harlan Coben’s brand could perhaps be summed up as “just fine crime”. Much like those previous offerings, The Woods is another competently made drama that should keep you entertained for the duration, but probably won’t leave a lasting impression.
Based on Coben’s 2007 novel of the same name, this Netflix adaptation swaps out the book’s American setting for Warsaw, Poland, an interesting choice that plays into the show’s crime noir style. District prosecutor Paweł Kopiński is haunted by the memory of his sister, who went missing 25 years ago with three other teens at a summer camp where he was a chaperone. Two of their bodies were found soon after, but his sister’s whereabouts remain unknown. When a third body is found in the present day with a connection to her case, it ignites fresh hope that she could still be alive.
Those well-versed in crime drama know the drill by now. A narrative split between flashbacks to the ’90s and Paweł’s search for answers in the present, working in tandem to slowly reveal the full picture in time for the final credits. Revolutionary storytelling it is not, but it’s a tried and tested method which works reasonably well here.
Both threads have their own intriguing mysteries, but the flashbacks prove to be more engaging. Dealing with the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, these scenes effectively convey the horror of losing a loved one under such terrible circumstances and lacking the closure of knowing what happened to them.
Hubert Milkowski gives a sympathetic turn as young Paweł, burdened with the knowledge that he could have prevented the macabre incident had he not given in to his feelings for camp crush Laura (Wiktoria Filus). There’s a strong sense of continuity between their performances and those of their older counterparts, Grzegorz Damiecki and Agnieszka Grochowska, which keeps the story from ever feeling disjointed.
That said, Damiecki has less gripping material to work with as an older Paweł, who takes on a high-profile rape case in his job as district prosecutor. It’s a shoehorned subplot for the purpose of adding some urgency to the present day story, one that feels increasingly like an afterthought as the series progresses. Likewise, while the core mystery successfully reels you in for the first half of the series, it too loses some of its sheen in the second half as the pace slows down.
This issue is exacerbated by a general lack of style, as The Woods noticeably leans on bland shot composition and a repetitive ambient score which pipes up too regularly to be taken seriously. It’s hard not to wish this story had been executed with more visual flair, particularly in regard to the eponymous woods themselves which really should feel more frightening given what occurs there. Instead, the location consistently feels all too unremarkable, sapping tension from scenes that take place within its trees.
It’s for this reason that “just fine” remains the most apt description for Coben’s crime dramas. The Woods is another solid showing, complete with good performances and an intriguing mystery, but there’s a lack of artistic ambition here that keeps it from elevating to the higher tiers of the genre. To borrow a classic school report line: The Woods could do better.