The Sea of Trees


You could almost hear the boos all the way from Cannes after
the now-infamous premiere of Gus Van Sant’s “The Sea of Trees” over a year ago.
Then again, Cannes viewers have a history of, shall we say, outspoken responses
to films that garnered very different reactions when they finally made the journey
across the pond (please leave the room if you’re one of the folks who booed “The
Fountain”). Perhaps the unleashed vitriol against this high-profile film was
unmerited. It had to be to a certain degree, right? The director of such great
films as “Drugstore Cowboy” and “Milk,” working with Matthew McConaughey in the
middle of his McConaughaissance and undeniably fantastic co-stars Naomi Watts
and Ken Watanabe. On paper, it feels like a can’t-miss, especially when one
considers how much it plays with themes that Van Sant has often-brilliantly
explored before. Movies don’t exist on paper. And this one’s a mess.

“The Sea of Trees” uses depression, cancer and suicide as
manipulative devices to tug at heartstrings instead of offering even the
slightest insight into the human condition. In one of the films more lugubrious
passages—and there are several—I started to consider how much “The Sea of Trees”
incorporates themes and concepts of other, better Gus Van Sant films. He’s long
had a fascination with the natural world, used effectively in films like “Gerry”;
he’s certainly unafraid of what might be called slow pacing in works like “Last
Days”; and he’s confronted depression repeatedly, in most award-winning fashion
with “Good Will Hunting.” Maybe that’s why this script appealed to him in the
first place, but it could also be why he can’t find a way to bring anything new
to it. He’s been here before.

Arthur Brennan (McConaughey) buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo.
He brings no luggage. He goes straight to Aokigahara, a forest at the base of
Japan’s Mount Fuji that’s such a notorious location for suicide that this is
actually the second film about it released this year (after the horror entry “The
Forest” in January). He works his way into the forest, finds a ledge on which
to sit, takes off his glasses, and slowly starts taking the prescription
medicine he brought with him. That’s when he spots Takumi Nakamura (Watanabe),
another suicidal man who now seems to be looking for a way out of the forest
and back to safety, but he’s lost the path. Arthur wants to help Takumi, and
the union seems to give both men purpose again. Even if they want to die, they
also want to help each other. Being suicidal doesn’t change someone’s innate
goodness. And there’s a good movie in Arthur and Takumi talking, walking,
learning and rediscovering reasons to live.

Sadly, “The Sea of Trees” isn’t really interested in that
movie. Instead, Van Sant and screenwriter Chris Sparling flashback to fill us
in on why Arthur Brennan is here in the first place, making “The Sea of Trees”
one of those horrible “suicide explainer” movies, in which someone’s depression
is turned into a mystery to solve. Stick with the flashbacks long enough and
you’ll know why. We meet Joan Brennan (Watts), Arthur’s miserable wife. She’s a
functioning alcoholic, driven deeper into the bottle by the fact that her
husband cheated on her. She’s also a horrendous caricature, imbued with as much
realism as possible by Watts but purely a device in Sparling’s script. She’s
the awful wife, who then become the sick wife when she gets a cancer diagnosis.
“The Sea of Trees” is a movie about suicide, cancer and depression that’s not honestly interested in any of them. They are merely devices to get us
to the third act revelations.

Don’t worry, I won’t spoil the third act of “The Sea of
Trees,” other than to say that Nicholas Sparks would raise an eyebrow at the manipulative
twisting and turning of Sparling’s script. The true tragedy is that McConaughey
actually isn’t bad here. He has a monologue about an hour in, during which he
fills in his forest companion on the history of his marriage, in which not only
is McConaughey quite good but you realize how unnecessary the flashbacks were
in the first place—hearing Arthur talk about his marriage is much more
interesting than watching clichéd highlights from it. Although, in this scene
and throughout the film, Van Sant and composer Mason Bates make tragic
mistakes. This is one of the most overheated, awful scores of the year,
sounding like something cut from mid-‘90s Miramax awards bait when this project
would have been much better served by the natural sound of the wind through the

Bates’ score is just one example of a mistake in a film that
contains an easily identifiable misstep every few minutes. Whether it’s a clichéd
line of dialogue, a lack of confidence in the core of the storytelling, a false
impression of depression, or the horrendous twists of the final act, “The Sea
of Trees” piles on the filmmaking errors in a way that makes the boos from
Cannes somewhat surprising in that it’s hard to believe there were
that many people still there to make a sound.

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