The Sea of Trees is a film with a lot of baggage. Notoriously eliciting a chorus of “boo”s from Cannes audiences when it played in competition at the festival last year, it’s an outing that, despite being acquired by the usually reliable A24, might signal you to enter the film with a tinge of skepticism. And while films that are often derided at Cannes can often turn out to be good—or even great, in the case of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart and many others—I can say with regrettable certainty, that is not the case with Gus Van Sant’s latest.
The Sea of Trees stars Matthew McConaughey as Arthur, a frustrated academic and man adrift, who opens the film by solemnly and painstakingly preparing to end his life (for reasons yet unknown) in Japan’s famed suicide forest. Leaving the keys in the ignition of his car as he arrives at the airport for his transatlantic flight – this, of course, to show he means business – Arthur lands in Japan with little more than a specifically intentioned bottle of pills and a faraway look in his eye, then bravely toddles into the wilderness, ignoring the abandoned cars and rotting corpses that litter the grounds.
Lest the film be the shortest of Van Sant’s oeuvre, Arthur quickly discovers that he is not alone in the ghostly forest. Enter Takumi (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese businessman whose last-minute change of heart has left him bloodied, but still alive despite his two-day long sojourn in the woods.
What follows is a Survivor Man-esque attempt to stay alive in the increasingly hostile environment amidst rain storms, flash floods, and nearly back-breaking falls—as the men become ever more lost in the almost mystically labyrinth of a forest. It’s a grueling film experience, punctuated by sudden, protracted flashbacks to Arthur’s stateside life with his wife Joan (Naomi Watts), a successful real estate agent whose functional alcoholism (along with Arthur’s long-ago infidelity) drove a wedge between the couple. Some of The Sea of Tree’s best moments come from those early flashbacks—in which McConaughey and Watts indulge in some wine-soaked scenery chewing not unlike a lesser rendition of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—but the film is unable to keep its edge for long, as it dips deeper and deeper into soppy melodrama.
I hesitate to spoil the rest of the film, though to “spoil” would imply that the film’s twisty proceedings deliver even a smidge of joy—they don’t. Suffice it to say that the film’s biggest emotional move is also its silliest, and the film spends its last act on lengthy exposition and ham-fisted revelations that act more as punchlines than epiphanies. In fact, the film’s final emotional blow seems so far-fetched that even the clumsiest M. Night Shyamalan third act might seem Ginsu-sharp in comparison.
Van Sant’s strengths, as is often the case, lie in his visual aesthetics. The Sea of Trees is absolutely gorgeous, particularly when he and DP Kasper Tuxen take a moment to photograph the seemingly limitless forest. (Perhaps it’s a film that would be better appreciated on mute?)
McConaughey, Watanabe and Watts all deliver serviceable (though perhaps bombastically overplayed) performances given the material, but none are able to elevate the film from its cement-shoed doldrums. Watanabe is done the biggest disservice, as the film’s plot picks and chooses from Japanese culture to develop its central themes, then allows Takumi to take up a role that essentially amounts to “helpless mystic”—alternately existing to give our protagonist a reason to keep searching for a way out of the maze-like woods and live again, and occasionally to mispronounce an English word to raise Arthur’s spirits.
While Van Sant remains a notable modern-day director despite a few recent missteps, it seems important to note that he hasn’t written a film since Paranoid Park, and even then it was only loosely. The screenplay credit here goes to Chris Sparling, who wrote the equally disappointing “twist” movie Buried, and who here gives McConaughey and Watanabe stacks of clunking dialogue doublers like, “I don’t want to die, I just don’t want to live” and “I didn’t come here because of the loss, I came here because of the guilt.” Luckily, The Sea of Trees manages to best the other notable U.S. film based on the famous Japanese locale—the Natalie Dormer vehicle The Forest was far less elegant in its failure—but a win that slight is no cause for celebration.
The Sea of Trees opens in select theaters Friday, August 26; it is also available on VOD on the same date.