The Sea of Trees (2016)

the-sea-of-trees-review

It’s hard to understand exactly what Gus Van Sant was thinking when he set out to make The Sea of Trees. It’s hard to recall the last time he even made a film this unsubtle, dramatically contrived and unrestrained in its sentimentality, so much so that it would put Nicholas Sparks to shame. And the fact that Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts and Ken Watababe didn’t immediately throw out or burn the film’s script when it was sent to them leaves me a little surprised to be honest. I guess they were just blinded by Van Sant’s body of work; thinking he could somehow, make even a script like this work.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Arthur Brennan, who when we meet him is on a literal suicide mission to the Aokigahara Suicide Forest in Japan (we know that because he leaves his keys in his car at the airport, buys a one-way ticket and has no luggage). When Arthur arrives at the forest, he strolls around for a while, sees a few corpses, finds a rock to settle on and proceeds to pop some sleeping pills. His grim activity is halted when he sees a bloodied, incoherent Japanese man played by Ken Watanabe wandering around, lost. Arthur attempts to guide the lost man to a path out of the forest, but in the process both of them lose their way. The mission of suicide gets put on hold, because now the two have to figure out exactly how to get out of the damn place.

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But I suppose The Sea of Trees’ starts getting really, really contrived when it tries to explain exactly why Arthur wants to commit suicide in the first place, which revealed through a number of flashbacks turns out to be his once crumbling marriage with his wife Joan (little more than a plot-device) played by Naomi Watts. But rather than revealing the details gracefully, Chris Sparling’s screenplay literally spits the exposition on your face. It’s really amazing how on-the-nose the entire script is, whether it’s with the pretentious and often pointless dialogue, a lot of which include monologues by Ken Watanabe’s character on spirituality (he wouldn’t be Japanese otherwise now, would he?) or the painfully clichéd interactions between McConaughey and Watts as they bicker over stuff like: leaving the tea kettle on.

And the fact that this film uses depression, cancer and suicide as manipulative plot-devices only lessens it as a dramatically serious film. But all that is nothing compared to how atrocious and toe-curlingly bad the third-act of this film is which pretty much sinks it completely. I’m not going to spoil it, but I will say that I anticipated both twists, one of which comes in the ending, but I didn’t expect the script to actually go through with it, primarily because of how preposterous and hackneyed they both are.

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If there’s anything about the film that works its Matthew McConaughey’s performance, who really seems to be trying to rise above the material. And he succeeds for the most part, and is able to offer a pretty sincere and full-bodied portrayal of his character, despite how less he’s given to work with. And I suppose cinematographer Kasper Tuxen deserves some credit for capturing the Aokigahara quite beautifully and giving a really picturesque feel to the location.

But ultimately, it simply isn’t enough to stop The Sea of Trees from still being a very bad movie. It’s contrived, tone-deaf, self-serious and mawkish to a fault, with a script that feels like a product of a bad screen-writing workshop.

3.7/10

-Khalid

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21 responses to “The Sea of Trees (2016)

  1. Completely agree about every single thing! I literally said “fuck you” to the movie when SPOILERS the ambulance got hit by the car. Cringed at pretty much every other part of the movie except that weird “spiritual” message thing at the end which just made me laugh.

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  2. Hi Khalid! I just read a handful of reviews of this last week and they all said this movie is loathsome and boring. One reviewer practically gave all the plots away as he doesn’t recommend people to see it. It’s astounding given the talents involved. Do you think this falls in the categories ‘so bad it’s good’? 😉

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    • Hey Ruth! It’s really bad. And I suppose there are some moments that fall into that category. I LOLed at a scene in which McConaughey Googles: “a perfect place to die” and they actually show the computer desktop. And a few moments in the end are definitely laughable. But mostly I just cringed at the awful, out-of-place dialogue.

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  3. Pingback: Everybody’s Chattin + Most-Anticipated Movies from TIFF 2016·

      • I’m not exactly high on the guy myself. He’s way too preachy. Good Will Hunting is pretty good but when I finally saw it this summer I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed. The duo of Damon and Williams was perfection though. Man, I miss Robin Williams

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      • Understandable. And yeah, Damon and Williams are both excellent in it. Definitely one of the definitive Robin Williams performances too. I also think the reason I like Good Will Hunting is because it has very few of Van Sant’s fingerprints on it since the script was written by Affleck and Damon. I’ve actually always considered it as more of an Affleck/Damon film than a Van Sant film.

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  4. Ouch. Is this that movie I heard about some time back where people were getting upset because it was trivializing a sensitive issue in Japan and white washing things? Doesnt sound like it turned out to be a very thoughtful piece of work.

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    • It’s really weird and hokey and tries to make you care for a story that feels incredibly artificial and is laughably bad.
      So yeah, not a very thoughtful piece of work at all.

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