Sea of Trees: Van Sant’s Banal, Schmaltzy Melodrama

Gus Van Sant has not made a decent film since the biopic Milk, which was nominated for the 2008 Best Picture Oscar.

His latest, The Sea of Trees, which world premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Fest—where it was booed—finally got limited theatrical distribution in late fall.

I don’t think the film deserved to be booed, nor do I consider it one of 2016’s worst pictures.  Nonetheless, Sea of Trees is a weak, dramatically shapeless narrative (by Chris Sparling) that gets worse as it goes along.

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The film is overly sentimental, asking viewers to grant sympathy for a pathetic man, about to take his own life, who really doesn’t deserve our attention.

Matthew McConaughey plays Arthur Brennan, a middle-aged man who buys a one-way ticket to Japan’s Aokigahara, also known as the Suicide Forest or the Sea of Trees.

The suicide rate in this gorgeously verdant region is so high that officials have put up signs urging visitors to reconsider–“Please think again, so that you can make your life a happy one.” Ignoring the signs, Arthur begins to swallow the pills in his possession.

Suddenly, he is interrupted by another man, Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), badly wounded and bleeding.   Despite his determined intent, Arthur helps the man make his way out of the forest, but they lose their way

With both men injured and lost, they begin to engage in intimate conversations about their subjective motivations for coming to Aokigahara.

And her lies one of the film’s major shortcomings.  While Takumi gets a very brief time to narrate his life and the loss of a job, Arthur becomes the privileged persona, engaged in lengthy monologues and granted detailed flashbacks of his previous life.

Arthur’s cause of misery turns out to be as banal as the rest of the film—he is stuck in an unhappy marriage to Joan (Naomi Watts), an angry alcoholic, fed up with her husband’s low-paying job as a science teacher.

Matthew McConuaghey in Gus Van Sant's Sea of Treees

Matthew McConuaghey in Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees

Suffering from a brain tumor, Joan goes through radiation before expiring, turning her already tormented husband into a messy, self-pitying creature.

Meanwhile, back in Aokigahara, a nasty storm almost washes Arthur and Takumi away, turning the second half of the film into an unconvincing survival thriller.

Repetitive to a fault, the film favors McConaughey as a character and as an actor, leaving Watanabe in the dark (literally and figuratively) and given to broad and vague statements, such as “This place is what you call purgatory.”

At one point, Arthur describes his wife as a cliche, and the term can be applied to the entire movie, which gets embarrassingly schmaltzy and unbearably kitschy.

Sporadically, we take relief from the bathos through the beautiful imagery by cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, which variegates the proceedings with shots of the forest and its trees as they change their look at daylight and night.