A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
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.
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