In a career that has seen its share of ups and downs, Gus Van Sant’s new film is right near the bottom. Having won the coveted Palme d’Or back in 2003 for Elephant, he finds himself almost inexplicably in the running (and I say that only in the sense that it is at least in the competition category) with The Sea of Trees, a comically trite drama that sees Matthew McConaughey trapped in a magical suicide forest.
The forest is Aokigahara in Japan, also known as the Sea of Trees. A genuine suicide hotspot – that’s worth pointing out as nothing in this film is easy to believe – the forest is swept for bodies annually and signs are placed all over encouraging the desperate to think again. McConaughey’s faltering scientist/teacher Arthur Brennan is one such desperate soul. Having given up on life, he decides to end it in a beautiful location following a promise made recently to a loved one. Aokigahara itself has no particular meaning. It’s simply the first result that comes up on google when he types in “a perfect place to die”.
Van Sant sets the clunky tone from the start. We first meet a morose Arthur driving to the airport. Just to make clear what he’s up to, multiple opportunities are taken to show a one-way trip. There’s the parking ticket left in the car while an announcement informs drivers to take it with them followed by a refusal to buy a return fare. He even leaves the keys in the car while his lack of luggage is pointedly highlighted. Everything is pointedly highlighted from hereon in.
Funnily enough for a man set on ending it all, he goes about it pretty slowly. Not only does he decide to cross the Pacific first, he then searches for the perfect spot before popping pills individually. This inefficient approach allows time for a dishevelled Ken Watanabe to stumble in as Takumi Nakamura, a similarly disenchanted businessman who slit his wrists only to recant. Now he needs Arthur’s help to escape from under the trees.
What follows is a bizarre odyssey as the unlikely duo stagger around falling off ledges and nearly drowning in caves. In between regular scrapes with death, they hold ham-fisted debates about faith – Arthur is a scientist and Takumi believes in the forest spirits – while stumbling across the bodies of multiple suicides left lying unceremoniously around. In such a mawkishly sentimental film, the discovery of corpses is remarkably clinical, Arthur looting them for anything he can carry away. If that’s not enough, the story offers up a series of flashbacks revealing the events between Arthur and his alcoholic wife Joan (Naomi Watts) that led him out here in the first place.
The whole thing is a mess, compounded by a horrible score that veers between nature ringtones and the kind of music you might find in an insurance advert. Van Sant captures several nice shots, but he’s too easily distracted by the foliage. The camera often breaks away to admire light filtering through distant branches. At least the performances are good, but nothing less should be expected from actors of the quality of McConaughey, Watanabe and Watts. They play their roles with admirable gusto, even if Chris Sparling’s screenplay leaves them high and dry.
When this fiasco finally comes to an end it does so with two awful twists; one that became apparent within the first 20 minutes, the other so cheap and pointless it’s impressive anyone let it remain in the final cut. This begs further questions. Amidst all the spiritual posturing, family drama and Freeview channel survival footage, did anyone actually watch the film before accepting it into competition for the Palme d’Or? And if so, did they manage to keep a straight face?
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Chris Sparling
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, Jordan Gavaris
Runtime: 110 min