Gus Van Sant’s latest exploration into the damaged human psyche, The Sea of Trees, has had a rough go of things ever since it was booed at Cannes in May of 2015. Of course getting booed at Cannes can sometimes be a badge of honor, a la Tree of Life or Taxi Driver (!). Other times, it’s a telling fate.
Unfortunately, The Sea of Trees falls squarely in the latter category. Here is one of the most unintentionally hilarious movies I have seen in over a decade. It’s a stylish picture, beautifully shot, a story of death, despair, sadness, and crumbling humanity. But it’s a laugh riot. Because the small details are handled with such absurdity, the big moments executed with such ludicrous hamfisted direction, that the picture as a whole dissolves into an abject failure. It almost feel as if Gus Van Sant is expertly trolling everyone who tries to watch this film and actually take it seriously. He can’t be sincere with some of the decisions he makes.
Warning: There will be spoilers from here on out, because this movie must be discussed in some detail. But, hey, just read this and then you can save 110 minutes.
Matthew McConaughey, fresh off his Oscar win for Dallas Buyer’s Club (at the time this was made) and clearly thirsty for another nomination, plays Arthur. Arthur is traveling to Japan, to the Aikogahara “Suicide Forest,” a densely-wooded area at the foot of Mt. Fuji where people go exclusively to kill themselves. The fact this is a real place is more profound and upsetting than anything this movie tries to make us feel.
We don’t know for some time why Arthur is heading here, but it’s clear he is trying to kill himself; he leaves his keys in the ignition of his car at the airport, boards the plane without luggage, and doesn’t purchase a return flight. He lands in Japan and immediately takes a cab right to the entrance of the forest, picks a spot, and begins swallowing sleeping pills one at a time. He only makes it two pills in before he spots another man, disheveled and stumbling lost through the forest.
That man is Takumi, played by a staggeringly one note Ken Wantanabe. Arthur takes it upon himself to help Takumi find his way out of the forest, but somehow both men are now lost. I’m not sure what happened, but neither of them can find a trail anywhere. This is where the flashback to Arthur’s stateside life begin to kick in without any real segues. In these flashbacks, which soon become a solid half of the narrative, we meet Arthur’s wife, Joan (Naomi Watts), and discover the reason for his suicidal desires.
Arthur and Joan are not happy and it’s clear from the outset. They fight about small things, then those small things turn into too many drinks and dinner party tensions among friends and arguments in their massive Victorian home. Joan berates Arthur for not making enough money and pretending to be an intellectual (he’s an adjunct instructor). Basically, Joan is a horrible person, and Arthur is distant and spineless. We learn through these flashbacks that this couple has nailed down the Troubled Movie Marriage Trifecta: infidelity, alcoholism and, eventually, terminal illness. You guessed it! Joan winds up with a brain tumor, and suddenly this couple finds all the things they once loved about each other. Groan.
Oh, back to the Suicide Forest. Here’s where things begin to derail. Arthur and Takumi are frantically trying to find a trail again, and this is where Arthur slips and falls; he falls a good thirty feet, bouncing off a knot of tree roots, then spinning and landing with a violent thud against a giant boulder, before eventually landing on his back with a tree branch sticking through his side. Is he condemned to die here now, paralyzed and bleeding out? Are his legs surely broken? Nope. Takumi yanks the branch out of his side, and next thing you know the pair are walking through the woods again. Arthur suffered only a few bumps and bruises… I shit you not. What makes this turn of events even more absurd is the fact that later on in the movie he slips down the side of a boulder, maybe five feet, and breaks his leg.
I don’t like to just divulge plot details, but these are too funny. Later, when it begins to rain, the men try to find shelter. Wouldn’t you know it, there’s a cave RIGHT NEXT TO THEM! They get in the cave, but the two-minute rain storm causes the cave to flood and wash them out. No worries though, because then they find a tent with the skeleton of a person who killed themselves in it. How convenient!
Anyway, enough plot description for now. The Sea of Trees hums along with one poor narrative decision after another until you’re no longer watching with any emotional investment; you’re just watching and waiting to see what the next absurdity is going to be. In that respect, it’s not boring. As for it succeeding the type of depth and emotion for which it sets out to do, it’s an epic misfire. The big introspective moments are given one easy way out after another (Arthur, distraught because he didn’t know Joan’s favorite book, just so happens to be talking to a guy who knew that very thing). Not one of these three central characters is likable or interesting, and the screenplay from Chris Sparling overdoses on coincidence for the sake of plot. It’s also insanely cruel.
For example, the entire Joan story involves her being a hateful drunk, then a sick hospital patient, punished repeatedly by the screenplay. Then – and this is tremendous – Joan’s brain tumor is removed and all seems well. They’re actually happy. She’s being transported in an ambulance, talking on the phone with Arthur who is driving behind said ambulance. Out of nowhere, a dump truck T-bones the ambulance and poof… Joan is dead. SERIOUSLY! The moment is telegraphed, but even then you can’t possibly think it’s going to happen. Who would upend a major motion picture with such a stupid and contrived plot twist?
Van Sant builds the ominous dread for several minutes of inane conversation between Arthur and Joan, and then WHAM! It’s maybe the most cloying, cheap, hatefully idiotic development in a film pretending to take itself seriously. If she was going to die, why go through all this nonsense? Everything up to this point has been following the cliche playbook note for note, you could have just killed her off with the brain tumor. Simply jaw dropping.
There’s a whole mess of other dumb moments in The Sea of Trees. I’ll let you guess what eventually happens to Takumi; Arthur finds help (there’s a security team watching this forest on CCTVs?) and, hmm, nobody can seem to find this mysterious man. Weird. Didn’t see that from the very beginning.
Which leads me to believe this is Van Sant doing some sort of avant garde mockery of terminal illness, death-obsessed dramas. Like a spoof of 21 Grams (maybe that’s why Watts is in this). Van Sant is pulling our leg, taking us along on this ridiculous journey and laughing behind the back of anyone who would dare take such an asinine story seriously. It has to be the only explanation for a director as talented as Van Sant. He’s had his curious decisions – the Psycho remake for one – but even his “walking” trilogy of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days have an interesting, experimental quality to them. This is just flat-out dumb.
This is nothing but blatant self parody, I’m almost certain of it.