The Sea of Trees
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Opens August 26
Whether in his maverick (Drugstore Cowboy, Last Days) or journeyman (Good Will Hunting, Milk) mode, Gus Van Sant can be counted on to deliver basic surface pleasures: handsome cinematography, pretty scores with tastefully selected needle drops, lucid storytelling. His unshowy but unmistakable signature elevated his last film, the transparently agenda-driven fracking procedural Promised Land, via such superficial (but not unimportant) touches. Although Mason Bates’s score is too omnipresent, The Sea of Trees follows suit, remaining aesthetically attractive from its opening shot of acres of trees swaying in the wind on. DP Kasper Tuxen’s camera glides elegantly through the forest where much of the action is set, and the many nature cutaways never seem frivolous. Tuxen, who shot the also-gorgeous 3 Backyards, is equally at home filming stateside dinner table arguments.
The film’s prettiness is not what has gotten it savaged by critics and booed at Cannes, no doubt by the same senile, self-important regulars who think their jeering matters. “Easily Van Sant’s worst,” “a profound cultural insult,” “pile of sub-Nicholas Sparks tripe,” are some of the more polite hot takes elicited by The Sea of Trees, with most taking aim at the admittedly clunky “Black List” screenplay by Chris Sparling (Buried), which uses Japan’s fabled Aokigahara forest as a metaphor for one white American dude’s sadness. The dude is Matthew McConaughey, whose Arthur Brennan, a teacher and scientist, is newly widowed after the death of his wife Joan (Naomi Watts), a functional alcoholic whom we see bickering with Arthur in one of the film’s dual timelines. Arthur has taken a one-way flight to Aokigahara, a.k.a. Sea of Trees, to kill himself, as so many others have done before (54 completed the act there in 2010). But before he can get more than two pills down, he sees a bloody, stumbling, be-suited man, Takumi (Ken Watanabe), also suicidal but claiming he just wants out of the forest. Helping Takumi escape Aokigahara gives Arthur’s life short-term purpose, and their dependence soon turns mutual.
Other than an unnecessary and irritating final act twist, it’s unclear what the film’s detractors found so risible. There are some snatches of voiceover dialogue towards the end that remind you of things you haven’t forgotten—these should have been left out. It could be the touristy, gimmicky use of Aokigahara (a majority of the filming was actually done in Massachusetts). Or the thinly sketched characters of Takumi and Joan, who exist only in their relationship with Arthur. As the film progresses, the fact of Takumi even existing at all as a real person and not a hallucinated walking symbol becomes dubious, and Watanabe is given little to do other than mumbling some vague wisdom and moaning with thirst and hunger. Watts is mostly seen nagging Arthur over copious glasses of red, though the talented actress nails the little things, like snapping off her bra underneath her shirt or bleeding unexpectedly into a cup of tea. All of the big actorly moments are McConaughey’s, though, who emotes behind prominent eyeglasses that really deserve second billing. His performance is nimble and mesmerizing, and only slogs during one particularly melodramatic monologue. As an actor’s showcase, The Sea of Trees at least compares favorably to the repugnant Dallas Buyers Club, and you can’t help but credit that to the fact that this was made by a real director instead of a hack. If only for McConaughey’s impressive turn, and Van Sant’s surface pleasures, this flawed drama deserves something better than its hastily applied film maudit status.