"If God is not waiting for you on the other side, who is?"
Before its screening at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival many people hedged their bets that Gus Van Sant’s newest film, ‘The Sea of Trees’ would leave the festival with major awards buzz behind it. Boy were they wrong. Its infamous premier was greeted with boos (not Boo-urns) and the film itself was branded as one of the worst in the festivals history. But in all fairness this is not necessarily a bad thing, ‘Taxi Driver’ was famously booed upon its premier and it seems that unless your name is Lars Von Trier, it’s impossible to predict how that crowd will react. So is it worth the hate? Absolutely yes.
An American man, Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey), travels to the Aokigahara forest to kill himself at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, the site of numerous suicides. There he encounters a Japanese man, Takumi Nakamura (Ken Wantanabe), who wants to kill himself as well, and both men begin a journey of self-reflection and survival.
On paper ‘The Sea of Trees’ appears to be a film of such high stature as Van Sant’s other masterworks such as ‘Drugstore Cowboy’, ‘My Own Private Idaho’ and ‘Good Will Hunting’. Combined with a standout cast in the form of Matthew McConaughey and Ken Wantanabe as well as Naomi Watts. Sadly though what we get is a keen reminder that Van Sant is the same director who brought us pretentious dribble like ‘Gerry’ and the dreaded 1998 remake of ‘Psycho’ (just….why?) who hides under the protection of art house and uses it as an excuse for redundant, self-important, inflated monstrosities. ‘The Sea of Trees’ is one of them.
One can tell just how hostile the reaction was when the film’s original distributors (who had bought those distribution rights before the film even premiered) Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate dropped the film for “unknown reasons” shortly after the screenings. It was then picked up by A24 and 18 months after its infamous screening, it finally gets a wide release. As I said, on paper the it would seem impossible for ‘The Sea of Trees’ to be a complete disaster, but it’s attempts to explore themes of depression and suicide and marred with cheap gimmicks, tired clichés and thinly conceived plot devices that feel insulting to the audience’s intelligence.
Some of the twists and turns it takes feel tailor made to make the film as commercially accessible as possible. I know that sounds somewhat pretentious of me but by using such simple and manipulative tricks the movie undercuts any dramatic heft it was once attempting to establish. Instead of letting the backstory behind its central character develop naturally it’s explained in a series of clumsily placed flashbacks that remove any sense of interpretation or intelligence from the script. Not only that but the flashbacks are totally unnecessary and I don’t mean that in terms of quality I mean that on a literal narrative level in that there is no purpose for those scenes to exist. McConaughey, at one point in the movie, delivers a monologue chronicling the history of his life and what brought him to the forest which is not only far more interesting than the clichéd flashback technique but also leaves room for interpretation and discussion. But instead it is all made redundant.
The most annoying element of the whole equation is that McConaughey is actually rather good in the role. His part feels underwritten and poorly developed as well as lacking any depth or inner turmoil but for what he was given McConaughey performs with conviction and stature, to the point where even he seems to feel frustrated at how little characterisation he has to work with. This hurts the movie as a whole when it demands you care for the plight of its central character. I had so little investment in the story that the movie resorted to direct manipulation through an all-encompassing score that as well as sounding so painfully contrived to the scenario that I briefly wondered if there had been a malfunction during the sound mixing process, was a weak attempt to compensate for the lack of actual development.
In fact the same could be said for all the characters within the story, they are all cheap caricatures with whom I felt no empathy or emotional attachment to. The film simply tells you what to care about in the same way an Adam Sandler “comedy” does so, rather than building genuinely interesting and worthwhile characters it orders you to feel empathy for certain characters through exposition and music cues. It is almost baffling how frequently the film falls into a cliché, manipulative ploy or cheap gimmick. Every line of dialogue, every visual cue, every note of music and every idiotic plot point reeks of it.
Insulting to the intelligence of anyone expecting a genuinely worthwhile experience.