Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For June, we celebrate the birthday (and the sensitive, insightful eye) of Gus Van Sant. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees was greenlit in the glow of Matthew McConaughey’s resurgence as an actor. The same month McConaughey won his first Oscar, he signed on to star in Van Sant’s sixteenth movie. In the end, however, Sea of Trees did not become the next Dallas Buyers Club, Mud or even Killer Joe at the box office.
Moreover, it received the worst reviews of Van Sant’s entire career. Its critical marks were even worse than McConaughey rom-com vehicles like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. By the time it premiered in August 2016, The Sea of Trees was surrounded by an aura of doom. Years after all the negative hype, how does The Sea of Trees fare as a movie? Unfortunately, not well.
Though it professes to be a rumination on mortality on par with the best works of Ingmar Bergman and Terrence Malick, it all the emotional introspection of a 99 cent Hallmark card. The Sea of Trees begins with its protagonist, American professor Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey), going on a flight to Japan. The fact that he’s only bringing some carry-on luggage indicates he won’t be staying long. That turns out to be an understatement.
Brennan has recently suffered a terrible loss and can’t imagine moving forward in his life. He now plans to travel to the Aokigahara forest, A.K.A. the Suicide Forest. There, he’ll kill himself by way of overdosing on pills. When he’s about to end his life, Brennan spies a lost man, Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe). While trying to help Nakamura find an exit trail, Brennan ends up getting lost too.
Now stuck together, these two travel the forest looking for park rangers. Along the way, challenges in the forest and conversations with Nakamura help give Brennan a new perspective on life. We also get extended flashbacks to Brennan’s days with his now-deceased wife, Joan (Naomi Watts).
Though it professes to be a rumination on mortality on par with the best works of Ingmar Bergman and Terrence Malick, it all the emotional introspection of a 99 cent Hallmark card.
The basic set-up of The Sea of Trees immediately instills the feeling that something has gone wrong in Chris Sparling’s screenplay. Filtering a location like the Aokigahara forest through a white American lens is a concerning on its own, but The Sea of Trees ends up handling the location even worse in execution. The forest is never allowed to feel like its own standalone locale. Its only value lies in what it can offer to the movie’s white protagonist.
Nakamura suffers from a similar issue. His existence is exclusively built upon providing support and advice for Arthur Brennan. Ken Watanabe does what he can with the role but he’s thoroughly wasted in this part. Who thought an actor as talented as Watanabe should be handed comedic lines that function both as gay panic gags and as making fun of Japanese people mispronouncing English words?
Issues pertaining to the Aokigahara forest and Nakamura point to a deeper sickness that totally undercuts the intended message of The Sea of Trees. Sparling’s screenplay is supposed to be a story of a man who comes to die only to find a reason to keep living. But there is no humanity to be found in The Sea of Trees even when it comes to the non-Japanese characters. Arthur Brennan, for example, is all grim backstory but nothing else. He’s drenched in misery but there’s no personality for the viewer to latch onto.
This problem extends into the flashback sequences depicting Arthur and Joan’s troubled marriage. Rather than fleshing out two compelling human beings. these segments more resemble a bad Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? knock-off. Sparling’s writing lacks interesting characters, but it sure isn’t short on dumb climactic twists. The last twenty minutes of The Sea of Trees serve up a whole avalanche of predictable “surprise” payoffs. These elicit eye-rolls rather than tears. Who knew just the sight of a Hansel & Gretel Little Golden Book could make me emit such a disgusted groan?
Meanwhile, Gus Van Sant’s work behind the camera on The Sea of Trees is generic. Van Sant is in journeyman Good Will Hunting mode here and that means there aren’t any bold visual flourishes to liven up the tedious screenplay. Only handheld camerawork in a car crash scene registers as a distinct choice. Even then, though, it feels cribbed from the camerawork in the airplane crash sequence of Knowing.
The disinterested quality permeating Van Sant’s direction eventually trickles into the performances of The Sea of Trees too, including Matthew McConaughey in the lead role. Though he gained fame as a hunky rom-com lead, McConaughey tends to excel as a performer when he’s playing grimy tortured souls. On paper, tormented Arthur Brennan seems primed to continue this trend. In execution, the generically-written nature of Brennan means viewers will be yearning for more interesting pain-ridden McConaughey characters.
McConaughey tries to compensate for the lack of layers in Arthur Brennan by embracing a barrage of showier acting decisions. Glasses get thrown, big teary monologues get delivered, lines get yelled. It’s a notably pronounced performance that has its moments, particularly in his bittersweet line deliveries during his final phone call with Joan. But despite his efforts, McConaughey’s lead performance in The Sea of Trees is a lot of energy for little reward.
The underwhelming script for The Sea of Trees keeps weighing down McConaughey’s performance as well as the rest of the movie. Even with that screenplay to work with, Gus Van Sant’s directing here disappoints. The stagnant nature of The Sea of Trees has no trace of the bold filmmaking that put Van Sant on the map in the first place. An auteur who gained acclaim for pushing boundaries is firmly coloring inside the lines here.