Film Review – The Sea of Trees
The Sea of Trees
Aokigahara is a heavily dense forest located at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan. Nicknamed “Sea of Trees” or “Suicide Forest,” this area has developed a reputation as a popular site for individuals to attempt suicide. The suicide rate has grown so much that officials have stopped posting the statistics in an attempt to downplay its notoriety. Signs are posted at the main entrances urging potential suicidal visitors to think about their families and to call suicide prevention hotlines for help.
This is where director Gus Van Sant and writer Chris Sparling set their film, The Sea of Trees (2015). As the main character Arthur (Matthew McConaughey) enters Aokigahara, he passes by a number of signs asking him to reconsider his life and how much value he still has to give to others. Arthur, after experiencing a terrible personal tragedy, comes to Japan contemplating ending it all. It’s not until he meets a Japanese man named Takumi (Ken Watanabe) does Arthur start to rethink where he wants his path to go. What starts out as a decent into depression switches to a struggle for survival as Arthur and Takumi lose their way in the woods and have to search for a way out.
Gus Van Sant has visited this premise before, in the minimalist Gerry (2002). In that, two men (Matt Damon, Casey Affleck) get lost in the desert with no food or water. Sea of Trees is a much more approachable film than Gerry – it acts more as a traditional narrative whereas Gerry leaned toward an art house sensibility. While Gerry remains transfixed in the present, Gus Van Sant opens the timeline in Sea of Trees, inserting flashbacks to tell a side story between Arthur and his wife Joan (Naomi Watts).
The relationship between Arthur and Joan comes off as contrived and melodramatic. There is very little that feels authentic between the two. At first they can barely stand each other, with Joan resenting Arthur for not having a better paying job and Arthur growing increasingly frustrated with her incessant drinking. They loathe being around one another, until they don’t. Van Sant opts for very cheap and easy plotting that forces Arthur and Joan back into each other’s arms, none of which feels sincere. As their relationship moved forward, the less interesting they became because we start to realize that Van Sant is setting us up only to pull the rug out in the most obvious way possible. He tries to wring out an emotional response by doing something we can see coming from a mile away. The phoniness of Arthur and Joan’s relationship was so bad that it almost ruined the entire movie.
Luckily, Van Sant has a trump card up his sleeve in the form of Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey has turned his once fledging career around with roles that have really brought out his skill set. As Arthur he evokes a brooding, melancholy persona as a man who is at a complete loss, so much so that he has become numb to his own being. When Arthur arrives at the airport to go to Japan, he leaves his car keys dangling in the ignition and brings no luggage with him. McConaughey once again shows a character with a troubling inner conflict without necessarily having to express it externally. It’s only through his interaction with Takumi does Arthur start to open up and regain a sense of self. Unfortunately, Ken Watanabe doesn’t have much to do here other than to be a mirror in which McConaughey can reflect. However, Watanabe is such a gracious performer that he makes us feel his importance even though his character is fairly one-dimensional. The best moment happens when Arthur goes through a lengthy monologue about his life and his relationship with Joan. Watanabe contributes to the power of the scene simply by being an active listener.
Aokigahara is captured as a mysterious, haunted location. There’s eeriness in how the camera shows the thick and unrelenting environment. Throughout their journey, Arthur and Takumi stumble across a number of dead bodies, victims of successful suicide attempts. The way the bodies are composed within the forest makes it seem as though they are part of it, organic and sad but not really shocking. Of course, the forest is also incredibly brutal. Arthur and Takumi often have to battle through dangerous landscapes, thunderstorms, and flash floods. The metaphor here is not subtle: coming so close to death helps Arthur appreciate life in a way he hasn’t before.
When Sea of Trees premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, it was met with an overwhelming wave of boos. At the time of this writing, it has a score of 4.9 out of 10 at IMDb.com, a 10% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and a dismal Metacritic score of 23. The negative reaction has been almost unanimous, except for this reviewer. It is nowhere near as bad as these numbers indicate. Yes, there are some big problems, especially with the dynamic between Arthur and Joan. But there’s enough interesting ideas being explored that it doesn’t deserve the response it’s getting. I’m not saying it’s great, but it’s not terrible either.