The Sea of Trees (2015)

by - August 26th, 2016 - Movie Reviews


Van Sant’s Sea of Trees an Emotional Boondoggle

Mathematician and professor Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) has come to Japan’s Aokigahara to end his life. A lush, dense forest located at the base of Mount Fuji, it is known the world over as “The Sea of Trees,” a place people from all over the globe come to explore, wonder at and, for reasons that have never been completely understood, to commit suicide. Arthur intends to be one of the 100 or so individuals who do just that each year, and after finding a quiet, secluded spot in the middle of a seemingly never-ending expanse of green he begins to make his preparations, laying out all he believes he needs in order to pass from this plain of existence in relative peace.



Before Arthur can follow through on his plans, bruised and battered Japanese businessman Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe) stumbles out of a dense section of the forest begging for help, and unable to ignore his pleas he springs into action. But in his attempts to help Takumi bandage his wounds and regain his senses, it quickly becomes apparent that both men have no idea where the trails leading out of the Aokigahara are. They’ve disappeared, almost as if the trees themselves have decided neither man will be allowed to leave. As day becomes night, Arthur starts to question his own sanity, the lines between life and death, between fiction and reality, blurring with each passing second as the chances of survival for both men becomes increasingly bleak.

Director Gus Van Sant’s (Milk, My Own Private IdahoThe Sea of Trees is famous for all the wrong reasons. Premiering to disastrous reviews at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, not to mention a cavalcade of post-screening boos, the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s latest drama was quickly banished to distribution limbo. Now, well over a year since its debut, the movie limps into theatres with virtually no fanfare or promotion whatsoever, unceremoniously being dropped into the end-of-August wasteland in the hopes it will make a few quick bucks before being shuffled off to Blu-ray and DVD.

The Sea of Trees does not work. A meditation on life and death, there are plenty of mawkish melodramatic moments lurking inside Chris Sparling’s (Buried) script that are decidedly unappealing. At the same time, this is hardly the train wreck its Cannes reception would lead one to believe. Van Sant is just too strong, too confident a filmmaker, for things to go entirely off the rails, and when coupled with a strong, deeply committed performance from McConaughey it’s hard for me to dismiss the film entirely. If anything, I have a suspicion this one could end up getting significantly reevaluated in the future, and while I likely won’t be that champion it wouldn’t surprise me if others step up to the plate to take up the challenge sometime soon.

I was actually quite taken with the motion picture early on. Arthurs’s journey to Aokigahara is suitably haunting, the pain cascading throughout Brennan’s being palpable and pure. There is a pragmatism to his suffering that is compelling, and as such I was drawn into his story even though at this early point I could only guess the extent of the circumstances that brought him to this haunted, if still breathtakingly beautiful, spot on the map. It’s a poignant reminder of just how fragile our human psyches can be, how easily they can be shattered, the fight to put the pieces back together one some tragically are destined to lose.

But once Takumi shows up things begin their almost avoidable slide into schlock. While Watanabe is a fine actor delivering a suitably subtle performance free of unnecessary emotional excesses, this character just isn’t a good one. He’s a metaphorical siren leading his aspirant savior around in circles, his reasons for doing so not so much a mystery as they are a foregone conclusion, making the climactic revelations involving him all the more facile. Additionally, he is also the one that provokes Arthur to reveal his reasons for coming to the Aokigahara, the tale of his dysfunctional marriage to wife Joan (Naomi Watts) ham-fistedly interwoven into things in ways that are frustratingly jarring.

Still, McConaughey isn’t phoning anything in, his fiery portrayal of a man spiraling ever deeper into inconsolable pain sensational. I like the way he doesn’t soften any of Arthur’s edges, his prickly demeanor masking a number of insecurities that are easy to identify with. When he talks about his marriage, the things that haunt him most are striking in their cold, stark authenticity, McConaughey bringing these interior complexities to life in ways that are difficult to resist. It’s a strong performance, one that elevates the film around it to a plateau it never could have risen to without him, and as such I was continually curious to see what the actor was going to do with the character next.



But the metaphorical mixture Sparling has whipped up in his script is messy, the ingredients never meshing in ways that could be construed as palatable. For Arthur to be in the Aokigahara, it’s no shock where the mathematician’s relationship with his wife ends up. But in a quest to keep viewers on their toes he doesn’t just engage in a bit of risible misdirection, he pulls the rug right out from underneath his characters in a way that’s downright ugly. He treats the viewer with a form of haughty condescension that erases any and all empathy I might have had for Arthur, not so much because the tragedy isn’t massive, it is, but more because how it comes to pass is so superciliously portrayed. It’s insulting, and nothing Van Sant or his cast can do can make it feel any less so.

I’m guessing this climactic turn of events is the reason behind the critical disdain at Cannes, and I do admit the third act reveals are disastrous. Yet, the film is lushly shot by Kasper Tuxen (Beginners), the flood of greens, browns and grays astonishing, while Oscar-winning editor Pietro Scalia (Black Hawk Down) does a rather miraculous job crafting a coherent narrative out of all this non-linear jumping around. If the emotional component didn’t end up feeling so forced, so fake, McConaughey’s performance alone would likely be enough for me to want to cut The Sea of Trees some slack. But it is, there’s just no denying it, and as such, as much as I don’t think Van Sant’s latest deserves all the hate, that doesn’t mean I can send much in the way of love its direction, either.

Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle

Film Rating: 2 (out of 4)