Film Review: The Sea of Trees

Matthew McConaughey is a suicidal professor moping through the Japanese forest in this contrived, cornball spiritual drama.
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As sappy as its locale, The Sea of Trees sends Matthew McConaughey off into Japan’s Aokigahara forest, where he intends to die but—wouldn’t you know it—finds a reason to continuing living. That cloying premise is the foundation upon which director Gus Van Sant erects a monument to pseudo-spiritual uplift, which plays like a cross between an Into the Wild-style survivalist tale and a New Age-y treatise on healing, acceptance and forgiveness. Plodding, pretentious and painfully obvious at every turn, it’s a fiasco that leaves no doubt about why, upon its premiere at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, it was met with boos and guffaws.

With a dead-eyed stare that speaks to his dead-inside zombie disconnection, McConaughey is Arthur Brennan, an adjunct university professor who’s introduced sleepwalking his way to Aokigahara forest, where he sits down with a package addressed to his wife Joan (Naomi Watts), some water, and a bottle full of pills—the last two items meant to help him end his life in this famous spot for suicides. After ingesting his second tablet, however, Arthur is shaken out of his numb-to-everything stupor by the appearance of Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), a frazzled-looking individual whose suit sleeves are rolled up, revealing bloody wrist slashes. Takumi is in search of a way out of the forest, and Arthur immediately tries to guide him to a nearby path, but after a few failed attempts both men come to realize that exiting this corpse- and skeleton-populated place isn’t as easy as entering it.

Wandering about the forest, Arthur takes a borderline-catastrophic fall that leaves him with a giant gash in his side (Christ-like symbolism, perhaps?), and Takumi mumbles and mutters like one of the many lost souls that, he tells Arthur, roam this “purgatory.” Alas, Nakamura’s true magical-Japanese-specter role is apparent from the outset, thus draining any sense of mystery from The Sea of Trees. Such hit-you-over-the-head simplicity also infects the many flashbacks to Arthur’s life with Joan, during which we learn—through one heavy-handed expositional argument after another—that the couple was miserable, thanks to his go-nowhere career and selfishness (epitomized by a past affair) and her alcoholism and bitter resentfulness. In these scenes, Watts reconfirms her preeminent ability to portray acrimonious grief and despair, but Chris Sparling’s script is so determined to have his characters bluntly articulate their every emotion and thought that their marital discord comes across as flat, lifeless.

While a campfire speech by Arthur to Takumi makes plain that Joan is dead—as well as the specific feelings plaguing him in the wake of her passing—The Sea of Trees marries its crushing literalness with facile suspense regarding both the actual cause of Joan’s demise and Takumi’s purpose in this melodrama. Kasper Tuxen’s evocative cinematography places an emphasis on ominous otherworldly light cascading through the dense foliage. Nonetheless, working from a premise that superficially resembles his Gerry (insofar as it involves a disaffected man wandering off into the great unknown), and yet without any of that 2002 film’s ambiguity, Van Sant refuses to leave anything as subtext. Typified by a conclusion that finds an overdoing-it McConaughey smiling as he achieves quasi-mystical ah-ha revelations on three separate occasions, it presents a portrait of heartache, guilt and catharsis that’s as laughably corny as it is wholly inauthentic.

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