The Sea of Trees should have been a winner for me. It has two of my favorite things – Matthew McConaughey and haunted forests. Neither of them are quite used the way you’d like. You can see what director Gus Van Sant tried to do. I can think of 20 different edits I’d make to this film. However, we have this version so grab your DEET and long pants and let’s get moving.
Arthur (Matthew McConaughey, Frailty (2001), HBO’s True Detective) takes a one-way trip to Tokyo, and it’s not to visit DisneySea. Fabled among the death seekers and morbid romantics is the Aokigahara, or Sea of Trees – better known as the Suicide Forest. It is beautiful, picturesque and within its 35-sq kilometers, likely haunted. Over 100 people a year choose Aokigahara to end their lives, and that’s just an estimate based on the bodies found. No one knows for sure how many enter and never come out alive.
For those of you keeping count, this is the second movie released this year featuring that forest. The other one was The Forest.
Anyway, Arthur has also decided to make Aokigahara his final destination, taking nothing with him but his coat, some blue pills (no, not those – it’s not that kind of movie), and an envelope addressed to his wife. Before he can complete his act of self-destruction, Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe, Inception (2010), Batman Begins (2005)) stumbles by. Takumi is disoriented, lost and afraid. He wants to leave the forest but can’t find his way. Arthur, a good man, tries to help, by showing him the way, only to discover that he is also lost (METAPHOR ALERT). Together the two men wander over rocks and past the undiscovered dead looking for the path that must be there. In their moments of quiet desperation, they talk. Takumi is sad about his family situation and Arthur talks about his wife.
And yes, a tale of discovery and self-reflection as only Gus Van Sant (Milk (2008), Psycho (1998)) can deliver with a weighted baseball bat.
There’s a reason this movie got booed at Cannes and it wasn’t because the lighting was bad. The Sea of Trees could have been an engaging mystery/drama/ghost story but there was too much of Gus waving his arms and pointing at things that YOU MUST NOTICE TO GET HIM.
I like Matthew McConaughey in just about everything. His academic Arthur, who realizes too late that the woman he loves has changed but doesn’t understand why, is the ultimate Nice Guy. In fact, he’s a great guy, and he’s a sad guy and despite the mess of the second act, you want to see this journey to the end with him. There’s a poignant monologue told in front a campfire that much negates much of the flashback sequences we were subjected to in the beginning. It’s redundant and sure, you can understand the depth of Arthur’s hindsight. He becomes a far different man after being lost for a day, but the whole first act should have been recut.
There is no “a-ha” moment because that weighted bat whacks you in the head again. Ken Watanabe’s Takumi is this season’s Magical Asian, with just enough vague knowledge of folklore and traditions to keep Matthew from being completely in the willows (see what I did there).
Naomi Watts (The Ring (2002), While We’re Young (2014)) plays Joan, Arthur’s alcoholic and less than supportive wife. She’s uneven and inconsistent for a reason and better editing could have made her character less than a footnote and of sort of despised for much of the movie. By the third act, you get it, but I’m tired of movies that give us hateful characters we should feel sorry for BECAUSE REASONS. Seriously, Hollywood – stop it.
Come to think of it, this movie is one big girlfriend in the fridge trope, and now I’m pissed off because I expect better from Van Sant.
The Sea of Trees is dark and moody, and I know that feeling comes not from Van Sant’s artistry, but from Chris Sparling, he of Atticus Institute (2015) and ATM (2012). Despite the forest, you can see the dark and twisted saplings of the movie he wrote. You can also see how Van Sant cut those babies down and tried to build something it was never meant to be. The only reason you watch the whole thing is to see where Arthur ends up, because Arthur is written like a human being. You care about his journey, even if you hate how he’s getting there.
I watched the whole thing because I had to, but when this streams on Netflix you may not be as forgiving. That’s a shame.
What should have been a movie about suicide, depression and finding your way home is a movie about suicide, guilt, and not having the sense God gave a rock.
Recommend only if you’re a McConaughey fan and you need something to watch while you’re folding laundry.
The Sea of Trees is rated PG-13 for mature themes of suicide a few corpses, a car accident, and some mild language.