The Sea of Trees (2015)

seaoftrees_2015_poster
  • Time: 110 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Gus Van Sant
  • Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, Ken Watanabe

Storyline:

Arthur Brennan treks into Aokigahara, known as The Sea of Trees, a mysterious dense forest at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji where people go to commit suicide. On his journey to the suicide forest, he encounters Takumi Nakamura, a Japanese man who has lost his way after attempting suicide. The two men begin a journey of reflection and survival, which affirms Arthur’s will to live and reconnects him to his love for his wife.

One review

  • The Aokigahara Forest, also known as The Sea of Trees, lies at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan. Its trees huddle tightly together, generally refusing entry to wind or birds or any other animals. It is, as Wataru Tsurumi’s 1993 Complete Manual of Suicide declared, a perfect place to die. One could leave one’s life in the stillness of its fourteen square miles and rest assured that one’s body could lie undiscovered for months.

    Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) has come to this forest to die. He pauses to regard many of the signs within the forest that urge its visitors to think twice about what they are about to do: “The life you were given from your parents is precious,” reads one sign. Another: “You only have one life, take care of it.” There’s a darkly comic absurdity to these signs and one could easily mistake The Sea of Trees as a particularly morbid comedy, especially when Ken Watanabe’s Takumi Nakamura stumbles into Arthur’s view as he commences his suicide attempt.

    Having been passed over for a promotion and overwhelmed with disgrace, Takumi has also come to the forest to die. Yet, after having already slashed his wrists, Takumi has reconsidered. He has to get himself out of the forest so he can return to his family. And so now director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Chris Sparling present us with a perverse variation of Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – two men have come to die and now want to live, and the forest appears to be discouraging any and all of their efforts to survive.

    It’s an intriguing premise that is tremendously botched in execution. Part of the problem lies in the film’s awkwardly mishmashed nature. Perhaps concerned that watching two emotionally and physically wounded men lurching from one part of the forest, scrabbling up and down ravines, and dodging flash floods and other whatnots would try the viewers’ patience (though Van Sant obviously lacked that concern with 2002’s extremely tumbleweeded Gerry, to which The Sea of Trees is a spiritual companion), Sparling harks back every so often to Arthur’s troubled marriage to Joan (Naomi Watts), which begins as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-lite before suddenly switching to Love Story.

    It’s a credit to Watts that Joan’s transformation from alcoholic shrew to tremulous near-saint is even remotely digestible. However, any and all scenes with the couple are made redundant by Arthur’s monologue cataloguing his regrets. It’s an affecting scene with the camera tight on McConaughey’s face as he shares how the couple hid all their kind gestures to one another so they wouldn’t be acknowledged, but it doesn’t propel the narrative any closer to anything engaging. If anything, it builds a bigger bridge to the triteness and woeful sentimentality that boulder through the second half of the film.

    There’s not much to say about McConaughey or Watanabe’s performances – they’re both serviceable but at no point are either of them believable as men so gripped by sadness, shame or guilt that they would do themselves in. The filmmakers endeavour to weave in elements of a ghost story, but do it so carelessly that it almost feels an afterthought rather than a deliberation. “This place is what you call purgatory,” Takumi remarks at one point, and one certainly feels suspended in suffering whilst slogging through this impressively inert film.

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