If you are wandering one day, lonely and lost, and happen upon The Sea of Trees, the latest from Oscar-nominated director Gus Van Sant, chop it to the ground.
Starring Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts, the film debuted in infamy at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered to deafening boos. The Sea of Trees was the lowest-scoring Cannes entry in over a decade, earning an abysmal 0.6 (out of 4) from the Screen Jury ranking. Those jeers echo loudly over its American release: the onetime awards season hopeful is hobbling into just a few theaters ahead of a planned VOD debut. If there were any justice in the world, though, the film would have been chained to a radiator in a basement somewhere, trapped for eternity.
The Sea of Trees isn’t just a bad film; it should be an embarrassment to everyone involved in making it. The metaphysical weepie deals with sensitive subject matter — depression, suicide, and cancer — with the grace and subtlety of an atomic bomb, ending in a finale so painfully misjudged that it must be seen to be believed.
McConaughey plays Arthur Brennan, an adjunct college professor who travels to Japan to end his life. After he Googles “the perfect place to die” on his laptop (seriously), Arthur learns of a large wooded area located near Mt. Fuji where people from all over the world travel to commit suicide. Known as the Aokigahara forest, the spot was also featured in this past January’s horror release The Forest.
In the film’s finest (read: only decent) sequence, Arthur enters the woods prepared to die. “Please think again, so that you can make your life a happy one,” a sign posted at the entrance warns. He walks through a litany of bodies scattered throughout the brush to reach his final destination, an open clearing in the forest. As Arthur prepares to swallow a bottle of pills, he spots a helpless Japanese man, Takumi (Ken Watanabe), who cannot find his way out of the woods. The professor halts his plans to help the wounded stranger get home to his family.
The film’s structure is a familiar one for Van Sant. His 2002 effort Gerry is a noble experiment in non-narrative cinema, in which Casey Affleck and Matt Damon are trapped in the desert. The men journey toward a punishingly empty horizon in search of food, water, or rescue. The Sea of Trees marries the director’s minimalist tendencies, likewise on display in his Palme d’Or winner Elephant, to the forced whimsy of his 2011 feature Restless. In that wistful teen cancer romance, a young man spends his days hanging out with the ghost of a WWII kamikaze pilot, who is helping the young man come to terms with the death of his parents. He will learn to cherish life again when he meets a free-spirited young woman at a funeral he attended uninvited, a curiously unexplained hobby of his. The catch is, of course, that she has just months left to live.
The Sea of Trees, however, makes that film look like Citizen Kane. In an unnecessary series of flashbacks, it’s revealed that Arthur was once married to Joan (Watts), from whom he became increasingly estranged over the course of their two-decade marriage. Joan and Arthur don’t have problems. They have a collection of clichés. The couple was once happy — that is, before Arthur cheated with a co-worker. Why did he do it? Arthur tells Takumi he isn’t sure, but that’s because the screenplay by Chris Sparling (Buried) doesn’t seem to have thought too much about the answer.
Following the affair, Joan begins having a drink after work every day, and her portion size is the entire bottle. Arthur describes his ex-wife as a “high-functioning alcoholic,” which means that she’s lucid enough to constantly remind her husband of his shortcomings, even in front of his friends. In the grand tradition of cinema’s “bitch wives,” Joan has two modes: nag and nag. Watts brings a furious intensity to the role, but it’s wasted on such a one-dimensional character.
McConaughey, though, appears to be sleepwalking through the picture’s turgid, obvious dramatics — which are less “kitchen sink” than “rural outhouse.” In Mud and True Detective, the native Texan lends an understated gravity to his performances, playing damaged men haunted by what they’ve seen. But in The Sea of Trees, McConaughey is not wounded but petrified. When it’s revealed that his wife has brain cancer, the actor looks like he just took a fistful of Ambien. His scenes with Watanabe are dull and listless, the two men heading down a path to nowhere.
It would have been one thing to settle for vapid sentimentality, but what makes The Sea of Trees so galling, as it turns the afterlife into a game of riddles, is how manipulative it is.
Following Joan’s passing, Arthur goes to Aokigahara looking to absolve his guilt, but he finds the closure he seeks from a companion who may be more than what he seems. He feels like he never knew his wife — because he didn’t know what her favorite book, favorite color, or favorite season were. This information, however, will be delivered to him from beyond the grave in an out-of-left-field twist that would put M. Night Shyamalan to shame.
The film’s final minutes leave you feeling angry and cheated, like the loser in a game of narrative three-card monte. The man next to me in the theater slowly shook his head as the end credits crawled down the screen, as if the film had crossed a line he didn’t know existed.
The Sea of Trees isn’t the worst movie of the year, but it certainly isn’t for lack of trying.