Like The Forest, just without the ghosts. Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey and Academy Award nominees Ken Watanabe and Naomi Watts star in Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees.
Director – Gus Van Sant
Screenplay – Chris Sparling
Producer – Gil Netter, Ken Kao, Kevin Halloran, F. Gary Gray, E. Brian Dobbins, Allen Fischer & Chris Sparling
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing images and brief strong language
Inside Aokigahara forest, the infamous “Suicide Forest” at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, an American professor, Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey), has decided to end the personal crisis he’s in the midst of by committing suicide. While attempting to overdose on pills, Arthur encounters a distraught Japanese man, Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), who, like Arthur, has also decided to take his life. As the two meet and connect with each other, they begin a journey of self-reflection and survival, one that hopes to spark within them a renewed will to live.
The Sea of Trees had already gained infamy long before its release this year. About a year and a half ago, back in May 2015, it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to thunderous boos and laughs. Not the good kind of laughs either, but the kind of laughs that are spiked with just a touch of mockery to imply that your film sucks. Now, of course, just ’cause the Cannes crowd drowns a film in a sea of boos (See what I did there?), that doesn’t automatically damn this film to failure, just as cheers and a standing ovation doesn’t mean I’m gonna then hail this film as the next Godfather.
But they sure as hell hit the nail on the head here.
Gus Van Sant has been a groundbreaking force for the indie/art-house genre. Even with his student film wannabe grease fire, aka his woefully misguided shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho, staining his acclaimed resume, this is still the same man that gave us great works like Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, Elephant and Paranoid Park. Even his more mainstream efforts such as Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester and Milk are strong dramatic films, though Promised Land – eh – not so much. Despite there being nearly a decade separated from Van Sant’s last good film, 2008’s Milk, Van Sant’s successes far outnumber his bombs, so if you told me that he was getting together with an Oscar-winning A-lister currently on hot streak that shows no signs of slowing down and two strong, Oscar-nominated co-stars to do a film on a real-life subject that’s truly heartbreaking, I’d say sign me up. With the right script, performances, and direction, that sounds like a compelling, character driven and emotionally deep film.
And then if you’d tell me that the dopey ghost flick The Forest – yes, 2016’s contribution to the annual January shit-fest that kicks off every new year – would be the better film to tackle Aokigahara forest, I’d say you’re crazy, only to then be reduced to devastating tears after realizing you’re right.
The Sea of Trees wants to be the best of Van Sant’s two acclaimed worlds. It wants to be an effective mainstream character drama like Good Will Hunting, while also taking on many of the artistic traits from his earlier works. Unfortunately, it fails at both. Read about the history behind Aokigahara forest and you’ll see just how incredibly sad it is (the actual location goes as far as placing signs along their trail that urges those contemplating suicide to think of their families and contact a prevention hotline). The Forest used the setting as an excuse to throw ghosts and cheap jump scares at the audience. A far superior director with a gift for character driven storytelling such as Van Sant could’ve done it justice by offering an insightful look at depression, death and mourning. Well, at least that’s what you’d expect from him. Instead, he turns to emotional manipulation, ham-fisted heartstring pulling and an irritatingly on-the-nose melodramatic score to drive those themes home.
The primary culprit behind this mess, however, isn’t Van Sant, it’s Chris Sparling’s script. Not even the combined talents of Spielberg and Scorsese could elevate this maudlin sap. Sparling sows seeds of what could’ve grown into something deep here and there, but then chooses to not develop them any further. Not only is there a stark cultural difference between Takumi’s Japanese and Arthur’s American way of life (e.g., Japan’s hierarchical family structure), there’s also a stark philosophical difference as Takumi is a man of God and Arthur a man of science. Flashbacks with Arthur and his wife reveal a marriage strained by her alcoholism and his infidelity. There’s a lot that Sparling and Van Sant could’ve delved deep into, and we know Van Sant of all directors can handle characters with serious issues in his sleep, but nothing is explored to their fullest potential. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Every emotional theme is treated with the grace and subtlety of a sledgehammer to the testicles and every potentially strong narrative thread is handled in dull, rushed broad strokes.
Worst of all, the issue of both Arthur and Takumi’s attempted suicides is barely touched on before being tossed to the curb in favor of a fight for survival story a la 127 Hours or Cast Away. It’s as if Arthur, upon meeting Takumi, completely forgot that literally minutes before bumping into the mysterious Japanese businessman he tried to swallow a handful of pills. We’re given no notable reasons (aside from the simplistic excuses Sparling chooses to give his characters) as to what would motivate both men to go so far as to end their lives, which makes it hard to buy into whatever depression it is that’s ailing them, or invest in their fight to live as they brave the forest elements. I’m sure the survival elements were meant to spice up a disappointingly tedious film with at least a little bit of life, but it barely moves the film’s pulse monitor above a flatline.
Even with a cast as strong as the trio this film boasts, there’s really not much they can do to salvage it, and judging from their lethargic performances, it’s pretty obvious even they must wonder why bother trying. Watanabe, Watts and McConaughey (still riding high in the midst of the “McConaissance”) are all first-rate performers and will survive this dud, no matter how much they all seem to be on autopilot as they coast through the lack of substantive material they have at their disposal. To his credit, McConaughey does benefit from the film’s sole genuine moment when his character describes the way he and his wife, amid all their bitter domestic squabbles, would still do nice things to each other, yet hide them in order to avoid any gratitude. It’s a rare moment of honest emotion that works, but it’s unfortunately an all too brief moment that the rest of the film doesn’t take advantage of.
Watanabe isn’t so much a character as he is a cheap device used to spur change in McConaughey’s character, and though he gives her a good run for her money, it’s Naomi Watts who fares the worst of the three. Here she is reduced to a series of flashbacks that are meant to give depth and reason to Arthur’s current crisis, but ultimately add nothing to the film. Watts is a wonderful actress, but she’s stuck playing such a one-note character that disingenuously changes from cold, distant, alcoholic bitch to sad illness-stricken martyr at the snap of a finger. Both deserve far better than this.
It’s interesting to note that Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting also dealt with a widower reminiscing on his late wife. Not a single flashback was used in that film, but Van Sant, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s script, and of course, Robin Williams’s magnificent performance were able to paint a beautiful portrait of the relationship he shared with his wife without the need for flashbacks. Sure, getting rid of this film’s flashbacks would probably do very little to improve it other than reduce the amount of time you’re wasting. Still, Van Sant’s earlier, far, far far superior work proved you could create complex characters and relationships without flashbacks. That said, if you are gonna use the flashback device to tell your story, it’d help to give them a little bit more substance than what we get here.
For whatever reason that, honest to God, escapes me, I’m somehow not gonna spoil the third-act twist for you. Maybe there’s a small part of me deep down inside that feels it’s so bafflingly ludicrous that I’m hoping you see it ’cause that’s the only way you’ll believe it. God knows it’s not ’cause I’m just dying to have you all drop what you’re doing right now so you can rush out to see this disaster as soon as you can. Let’s just say it’s a nice surprise ending that’s on a ridiculous level of bull shit stinky enough to make even Nicholas Sparks blush in immense shame.
The Sea of Trees could’ve been a poignant and meaningful examination of grief, guilt and coping with death, but it falls so, so far short of that goal. To say it’s a disappointment is an understatement. This dull, empty and emotionally manipulative turd is more like a massively depressing black mark on the resumes of Gus Van Sant, McConaughey, Watts and Watanabe’s careers. Given the talent involved both in front of and behind the camera, as well as the film’s subject matter, this should’ve been a film that generates potential award conversations. Instead, it has to settle for a spot as one of the worst films this year.
I give The Sea of Trees a D- (½★).