“Love will bring you home”; the tagline of Gus Van Sant’s newest drama, The Sea of Trees, which shows heavy inclination of the feature you’re about to witness. The tagline itself is painfully generic, and whilst the narrative comes across as something that sparks interest you may find yourself wondering where director Gus Van Sant has gone wrong, and at which point The Sea of Trees transcends from marital dispute drama to survival thriller to emotional weepy. With all of these directorial shifts, there’s no surprise McConaughey ends up lost in the sea of trees.
Uproarious boos echoed throughout the Cannes hall where The Sea of Trees was unfortunately screened in. Once a beacon of hope and honour as he won the Palm D’or back in 2003 for Elephant, and nominated a further three times, Van Sant’s misdirected The Sea of Trees had the worst reception in over a decade. That’s some feat for such a renowned director, and a cast of infinite talent in the likes of McConaughey, Naomi Watts and Ken Watanabe to be seemingly wasted. Alas, the film took an unusually swift turn to VOD thanks to saving production company A24. Arguably, this is a bold move.
Arthur and Joan’s marriage is in despair. The pair argue incessantly and without hope of surpassing any problems. It isn’t until Joan falls prey to an illness that Arthur treks to Japan’s Aokigahara forest which is also titled the Sea of Trees, a mysteriously dense wood at the base of Mount Fuji where folk travel to end their life or seek personal solace in one way or another. There, he encounters a Japanese man who has lost his way after attempting suicide. The pair, both stricken with grief, begin a journey of reflection and survival.
Woodwinds plague the screen as McConaughey’s dreary entrance instantaneously issues sparing remorse; this is one of those films where flashbacks play as the main narrative tool as we’re relinquished to sub-par storytelling methods in the hope to culminate in some unexpected twist which inevitably travels back to the start to unleash something we missed. The Sea of Trees is paralysingly predictable fare; from the moment Arthur traipses into the airport to purchase a one-way ticket to Japan, we’re already three steps ahead of his ventures. When flashbacks arise, however, genuine marital play between distant spouses proves amicable as this is the most honest aspect of Van Sant’s film. Watts and McConaughey make the most of what their given, though it rarely lasts more than a half dozen scenes before they fall prey to everything that writer Chris Sparling appears to come up with.
The film quickly becomes a parallel of surviving the Aokigahara forest and a melodramatic weepy. Arthur and Watanabe’s shallow businessman whose bad day at the office has him attempting suicide find solace in each others problematic circumstances though Watanabe freely in between scenes of unconsciousness spouts wisdom and Japanese mythology that we’re to some way splice into what we know of Arthur’s marital issues. It then branches off into Nicholas Sparks’ territory which, for the most, actually proves most formulaic. Watts and McConaughey fare far better than any of Sparks’ ill-fated on screen couples, but the formula now appears cheap and emotionally-derivative, void of any nuance or partial difference. It’s almost believably maudlin before it then tips the boat fully with an ending that screams desperation and clichéd idiocy.
I can live with a story that’s as generic as a Sparks’ adaptation, but what’s most confounding is the increasingly problematic editing. One minute Arthur tumbles down rocks and is impaled by a stick, though pain never proves an issue. Van Sant merrily skips between scenes as though moments of explanation or clarity have been missed purposely. Watanabe’s character one minute talks in woeful clarity of the forest’s seemingly idyllic way of passing souls and the next appears paralytic and on the verge of death. Its wavering storytelling is an issue that can’t be surpassed, even for such a director.
It may have been the worst thing you saw at Cannes but it’s certainly not the worst thing of 2016. The actors really have no problem doing what they can with the script and really it’s beautiful to watch, just don’t expect anything particularly new or withstanding. It’s about as generic as they come.
Dir: Gus Van Sant
Scr: Chris Sparling
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, Ken Watanabe
Prd: F. Gary Gray, Kevin Halloran, Ken Kao, Gil Netter
Music: Mason Bates
DOP: Kasper Tuxen
Runtime: 110 minutes
The Sea of Trees is now available On Demand.