I’ve been waiting for it: the first great chorus of hearty booing in this year’s Cannes festival. Which director would get this “What were you thinking?” tribute from a couple thousand critics and industry insiders? The unlucky winner is Gus Van Sant with “The Sea of Trees,” premiering tonight in competition.
Whoa, what a dud. Where to start? In its trajectory, the film is reminiscent of Van Sant’s 2002 misfire, “Gerry,” a film with a cast of two, in which Casey Affleck and Matt Damon get lost in the desert without any supplies or means of securing help. “The Sea of Trees” has peripheral characters, but it’s basically a two-person plot, with Matthew McConaughey as an American who goes to a legendary Japanese forest in order to end his life, and Ken Watanabe as the lost Japanese man he meets there.
Aokigahara Forest, aka Suicide Forest, is a real place (Google it for an eyeful). People of all nationalities go there to commit suicide, as McConaughey’s Arthur Brennan does for reasons that are only gradually revealed. As he climbs the steep path from the parking lot, he passes numerous cautionary signs in Japanese and English, with messages like, “The life given to you by your parents is precious.” Once in the disorienting thick of the forest, Arthur encounters dead and rotting bodies in the underbrush and hanging from trees.
Settling in a picturesque spot to begin the process of offing himself via pills, he is distracted by the groans of Tekumi, a lost injured man begging for help. Quickly and predictably, both men decide they want to live, and begin futile attempts to find the way out. For a man who wanted to die, Arthur proves as impossible to kill as the Terminator. In addition to being drugged, he tumbles off a cliff from a great height, lands on his back on perilous sharp rocks, is impaled through the guts by a thick tree branch, swept away by a flash flood, and takes yet another fall from a cliff.
As night falls, Arthur seems miraculously hearty. The two conveniently stumble upon the well-equipped tent of one of the former suicides, and so they are able to spend a cozy night around the campfire exchanging confidences. This forest-bound saga has so far alternated with Arthur’s flashbacks to his unraveling relationship with his wife (Naomi Watts). Takumi, the stereotypical sage Asian, gives wise counsel, opening Arthur’s eyes to an unfamiliar spiritual dimension to life.
Many of this film’s plot twists are both predictable and unintentionally funny, triggering more than a few titters. I can’t even give away the good stuff. As Jake Gyllenhaal pointed out in the jury press conference on Wednesday, a bonus of being at Cannes is that you get to see films for free. Amen in the case of “The Sea of Trees.”