Gus Van Sant’s new drama, The Sea of Trees is a painful slog into metaphorical quicksand; the deeper the story goes, the more pretentious it becomes. Though well intentioned and luxuriously photographed, this fairy tale mediation on guilt and redemption will make you yearn for the thematic subtlety of a Robert Zemeckis film. All of its ironic twists and turns create an emotional barrier that’s strong enough to thwart the powerful performances of McConaughey and Watts. Sea of Trees proves to be a little too clever for its own good.
Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) has come to the Aokigahara forest in Japan to die. He’s not alone. Dozens of people from around the world travel to Aokigahara each year with the express purpose of killing themselves. The forest entrance is littered with signage begging hikers not to snuff it.
“The life you were given from your parents is precious!” a sign implores Arthur, but his mind is already made up. Flashbacks reveal a tumultuous marriage to Joan (Naomi Watts), a functioning alcoholic who harbors deep resentment towards Arthur for past indiscretions. Suicide seems the only escape from his pain and guilt.
Just as he’s ingesting a fatal overdose of pills, Arthur spies a wounded Japanese man staggering through the forest. It’s Takumi (Ken Watanabe), a businessman whose demotion at work means a life of economic hardship and personal disgrace. He came to the forest to slash his wrists, but changed his mind before the deed was done. Arthur befriends Takumi and they begin a quest to escape the seemingly inescapable “Sea of Trees”.
Watching The Sea of Trees is the epitome of frustrating. Every time you’re ready to embrace these difficult characters, an unforgivable contrivance pushes you back to arm’s-length. Screenwriter Chris Sparling bears the majority of blame, undermining Van Sant’s haunting imagery with a script that unfolds like an M. Night Shyamalan re-make of The Revenant (2016). Sparling borrows too heavily from trite thematic devices, such as symbolic orchids growing in barren soil. Regular theater goers will quickly identify these shortcuts, effectively killing the elements of surprise and enlightenment.
Sparling’s idea, to infuse his story with pathos from the classic children’s fairy tale Hansel and Gretel is admirable, but the delivery is ham-fisted and obvious. One need only revisit Egoyan’s brilliant use of Pied Piper of Hamelin in his masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter (1997) to see what a powerful technique this can be when executed properly. Here, it’s just a clever device that never insinuates itself into the fabric of the plot.
The script isn’t entirely to blame, however. Van Sant (Milk , Elephant ) makes some curious directorial choices that also ensure failure. The dreadfully slow pacing, for instance, would kill any script. There’s no urgency to anything that happens in this depressing world, as if we’re meant to savor Arthur’s succession of grueling kicks to the spiritual groin. Because Arthur is stuck in emotional Purgatory, his deconstruction is largely physical when it needs to be psychological.
The flashback structure, too, is clunky and haphazard at times. These are two separate stories that struggle to inform one another in a meaningful way; the pseudo-fantasy realm of the forest and the blistering lights of realistic domestic drama are a terrible mix. Curiously, the score by Mason Bates accentuates this dichotomy. His musical cues are often too whimsical or depressing for the scenes they accompany, as if they somehow became trapped in the wrong portion of the film. It’s these types of directorial missteps that make The Sea of Trees disjointed and uninvolving.
What Van Sant gets right, however, is the look of his film. The choice of Aokigahara as a backdrop for his story was an inspired one. The scenic desolation is perfectly captured by the camera of Kasper Tuxen, which at once embodies the splendor and the horror of this overwhelming place. Strewn with bodies and mementos of abandoned souls, the “Suicide Forest” is both a literal and metaphorical point of no return. There’s a macabre beauty to Arthur and Takumi’s struggle for survival, which often involves sifting through the remains of mummified and decaying corpses for life’s essentials. Van Sant should have entrusted Aokigahara with the heavy thematic lifting rather than resorting to plot contrivances and clever slights-of-hand.
His actors do their part by delivering stellar performances. The triumvirate of McConaughey, Watts, and Watanabe are thoroughly convincing, even when the material lets them down. Watanabe, in particular, is forced to use his inherent charm and likeability to overcome a truly thankless role. Daniel Radcliffe was given more dynamic range as a corpse in Swiss Army Man (2016) than Watanabe’s glorified ragdoll in The Sea of Trees. McConaughey, like DiCaprio in The Revenant, delivers a physically demanding performance, only without all the heavy breathing. He continues to develop and surprise as a dramatic actor, even when forced to play a relatively subdued role such as this.
Ultimately, The Sea of Trees is a “thoughtful” movie that belabors its ideas and themes to the point of silliness. Precious adornments drown this simple drama in frustration just when it should be picking up emotional steam. In the end, you’re left wishing you could see more of this fascinating forest without enduring the The Sea of Trees.