'The Sea of Trees': Cannes Review
This pre-Cannes Roadside Attractions acquisition officially ends Matthew McConaughey’s exceptional recent run of top-notch performances
Gus Van Sant’s sticky, gooey side — previously on display in the likes of Finding Forrester and especially in the 2011 Restless — oozes out once more in the woefully sentimental and maudlin The Sea of Trees. What happens to the more tough-minded and adventurous sides of the director’s personality on such ventures is a mystery, as they are entirely absent in this theoretically promising tale of two distraught men, an American and a Japanese, who meet while venturing into Japan’s infamous “suicide forest” to kill themselves. This pre-Cannes Roadside Attractions acquisition officially ends Matthew McConaughey’s exceptional recent run of top-notch performances and films, although his name will attract a bit of business in a modest theatrical release.
There are numerous ways that the spectacle of an American man headed to Japan to officially do himself in could be treated. But screenwriter Christopher Sparling (2010’s Buried) has chosen an approach that is sincere to the point of utter banality, a posture further reinforced by an obvious music score, inescapably indulgent acting and the project’s overriding motivation to turn a story of suicidal distress into something generically life-affirming in the most elementary Hollywood manner.
Sporting a scruffy, short beard and glasses, Massachusetts science teacher Arthur Brennan leaves the keys in his car at the airport and takes no luggage on his flight to Japan, where he heads straight to the Aokigahara Forest. Considered a haunted place going back centuries, this lushly wooded, darkly green enclave in the distant foothills of Mount Fuji is festooned with video cameras and signs reminding visitors that “You only have one life. Take good care of it.”
Blithely ignoring a “no entry” barrier, Arthur, wearing just a thin trench coat over his street clothes, stumbles upon physical evidence of previous like-minded death-seekers, including skeletons, and begins having flashbacks of nasty exchanges with his vituperative alcoholic wife Joan (Naomi Watts).
But then he encounters a man who looks rather worse off than he does, Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), a failed businessman who conveniently speaks good English, is bloody from cuts but has, after two days in the forest, somehow not managed to accomplish what he came to do.
After a flash flood nearly does them both in, the men abruptly decide they don’t want to die after all, and Trees becomes a survival tale as the guys, who take turns getting injured worse than the other, struggle to find a way to contact help (cellphone service is shamefully unreliable in the suicide forest), while Arthur wallows in memories of his wife’s battle of cancer.
This cheery scenario isn’t helped by the increasingly maudlin and sorry-for-himself blathering by Arthur, who breaks down repeatedly and truly has nothing other than dully commonplace things to say about Joan and their life together. As the character sinks deeper into wet, self-pitying gushings, McConaughey’s performance conversely becomes less expressive and more ordinary, to the point where you simply don’t care about how he feels and what happens to him.
As for the distinguished Watanabe, he has never been less so, here in a stressed out role that seems defined by deliberate vagueness. Watts hits her prescribed dramatic highs and lows with customary skill, but the characters compose a uniformly dull and not detailed lot with little but platitudes to utter.
Although most of the forest scenes were actually shot not in Japan but at Purgatory Chasm and other woodsy areas in summertime Massachusetts, the film does have an agreeably dark green-dominated look that’s easy on the eyes.
Production company: GN/Waypoint Enterprises
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts, Katie Aselton, Jordan Gavaris
Director: Gus Van Sant
Screenwriter: Chris Sparling
Producers: Gil Netter, Ken Kao, Kevin Halloran, F. Gary Gray, Brian Dobbins, Allen Fischer, Chris Sparling
Director of photography: Kasper Tuxen
Production designer: Alex DiGerlando
Costume designer: Danny Glicker
Editor: Pietro Scalia
Composer: Mason Bates
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes