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.
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.
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.