Cannes Film Review: ‘The Sea of Trees’

Sea of Trees Cannes Film Festival
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe star in this risibly long-winded drama from Gus Van Sant.

One way to pass the time during “The Sea of Trees” — preferably during one of Matthew McConaughey’s interminable misty-eyed monologues — is to try and figure out exactly how many bad movies the actor, screenwriter Chris Sparling and director Gus Van Sant have managed to squeeze into their tale of a man’s lonely quest to take his own life. Almost impressive in the way it shifts from dreary two-hander to so-so survival thriller to terminal-illness weepie to M. Night Shyamalan/Nicholas Sparks-level spiritual hokum, this risibly long-winded drama is perhaps above all a profound cultural insult, milking the lush green scenery of Japan’s famous Aokigahara forest for all it’s worth, while giving co-lead Ken Watanabe little to do other than moan in agony, mutter cryptically, and generally try to act as though McConaughey’s every word isn’t boring him (pardon the expression) to death.

How this dramatically stillborn, commercially unpromising Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions pickup managed to score a competition berth at Cannes (where it was greeted with a round of boos) is a vastly more impenetrable mystery than the one laid out in Sparling’s screenplay — namely, why a morose-looking Arthur Brennan (McConaughey) has decided to buy a one-way ticket from Massachusetts to Japan and enter Aokigahara, also known as the Suicide Forest or the Sea of Trees. The self-termination rate in this gorgeously verdant, 14-square-mile stretch is apparently so high that officials have even put up signs urging visitors to reconsider (“Please think again, so that you can make your life a happy one”), all of which Arthur determinedly ignores as he sits down and begins to swallow the pills he’s brought with him.

He’s interrupted before he can finish, however, by the sudden appearance of another man (Watanabe) staggering through the undergrowth, barely able to stand up and bleeding from some unspecified wounds. Following his compassionate instincts, Arthur tries to help the man, whose name is Takumi Nakamura, make his way out of the forest, but the main trail is suddenly nowhere to be found. It’s not long before Arthur tumbles into a small ravine and winds up as badly injured as Takumi, ironically leaving these two men — both of whom were ready to end it all — suddenly fighting for their lives. Along the way, they tell each other their respective reasons for coming to Aokigahara; not too surprisingly, Takumi’s story takes about a minute and involves the loss of a job (“You don’t understand my culture,” he mutters, a line that sounds suspiciously like something only a white man could have written).

Arthur’s narrative, by contrast, takes the better part of two hours to fully unfold, regularly cutting away from Arthur and Takumi’s plight — usually at the moment of gravest threat — to reveal another piece of the puzzle, in flashback after torturous flashback. Turns out Arthur was stuck in a rather unhappy marriage to Joan (an angry Naomi Watts), a high-functioning alcoholic who was fed up with her husband’s low-paying job as a high-school science teacher and his improbable journalistic aspirations, and unable to forgive him for some grievous misdeed. But wait, there’s still more: It’s not long Joan develops a brain tumor, reminding us of the inherently cinematic properties of radiation therapy and paving the way for a very long goodbye. Meanwhile, back in Aokigahara, a freak storm hits, nearly washing Arthur and Takumi away in a flood.

By the time the two men find themselves stripping down in a small tent containing a human skeleton, you’re about ready for “The Sea of Trees” to morph into either a full-on zombie freakout or “Brokeback Mount Fuji.” By this point, alas, it’s clear that Van Sant is not in one of his more experimental moods, narratively, formally or sexually, and he brings little to the table here except his tried-and-true gift for gorgeously moody image making: Cinematographer Kasper Tuxen works wonders with the forest’s softly diffused light by day, and makes exquisite use of a campfire to illuminate McConaughey’s and Watanabe’s faces at night. But the frequent shots of the eponymous forest — framed as either a sea of trees from above or a canopy from below — and the tinkling musical accompaniment composed by Mason Bates do little to slow the movie’s slow, inexorable slide into kitsch.

Indeed, it’s doubtful a more adventurous or aggressive directorial approach would have necessarily improved a piece of material that seems bent on taking the longest, least interesting road possible, all the better to drag out every last tear and gasp of astonishment it can hope to muster from a less-than-attentive audience. The film’s final passages offer an insipid pileup of narrative manipulations, quasi-supernatural twists and the sort of earnest, whispery philosophical refrains that make Naomi Kawase’s parallel Cannes entry “An” look like the highest Japanese poetry by comparison.

Watts is solidly moving and sometimes awesomely passive-aggressive, even when playing a woman whom her husband describes rather too accurately as a “cliche,” while Watanabe’s clenched reaction shots — typically in response to McConaughey’s endless speechifying — holds up almost too perfect a mirror to the audience’s own exhaustion. As for McConaughey, his recent mid-career high will continue in spite, rather than because, of misguided bids for seriousness like this one. “This place is what you call purgatory,” Watanabe says more than once, but like so much else in “The Sea of Trees,” his conclusion feels too overstated by half: Last time we checked, purgatory didn’t come with an exit sign.

Cannes Film Review: 'The Sea of Trees'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 15, 2015. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production

A Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions release of a Bloom presentation of a Gil Netter/Waypoint Entertainment production. Produced by Netter, Ken Kao, Kevin Halloran, F. Gary Gray, Brian Dobbins, Allen Fischer, Chris Sparling.

Crew

Directed by Gus Van Sant. Screenplay, Chris Sparling. Camera (color), Kasper Tuxen; editor, Pietro Scalia; music, Mason Bates; music supervisor, Chris Douridas; production designer, Alex DiGerlando; art director, Erik Polczwartek; set decorator, Jeanette Scott; costume designer, Danny Glicker; sound (Dolby Digital), Felix Andrew; supervising sound editors, Teri E. Dorman, Ai-Ling Lee; sound designer, Lee; re-recording mixers, Deb Adair, Beau Borders; special effects supervisor, Mark Byers; senior visual effects supervisor, Paul Graff; visual effects supervisor, Olaf Wendt; senior visual effects producer, Christina Graff; visual effects producer, Rachel Berry; visual effects, Crazy Horse Effects; stunt coordinator, Mark Norby; line producer, Kosuke Oshida; associate producer/assistant director, Thomas Patrick Smith.

With

Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts, Katie Aselton, Jordan Gavaris.

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  1. Fred Upchurch says:

    Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe star in this risibly long-winded drama from Gus Van Sant.

    Where I saw a beautiful well-crafted story, you (and others) saw nothing but stupidity, and unworthiness in the movie. Your review seemed to reflect the movie was based on elements you don’t approve of. You are at great pains to criticize these elements.

    Guess what? The movie wasn’t made to refer to your judgments! You didn’t actually ‘see’ the movie for what it is. You were distracted by your preconceived values.

    Roger Ebert once said, “The duty of the movie critic is to review the movie as it was made, not the movie that could have been made”.

    You should bear that in mind.

  2. Lin Frank says:

    What movie did you see? I saw a great movie…with an incredible message of hope after helplessness. I can’t believe this movie was panned. Hope it gets an oscar nod to shut you all up.

  3. Mika Abe says:

    Mr. Chang,
    Please refrain from referring to a film as a “cultural insult” if you do not belong to said culture supposedly being insulted.
    Sincerely,
    A Japanese Reader

  4. Michael says:

    Chang’s point about Watanabe’s character, his job loss and the “You don’t understand my culture” bit is about the fact that for us as viewers to understand the gravity of his situation, we would need to actually spend more than two minutes with him and see *his* past as well…but we are not given that chance, as the film seems centered around McConaughey’s character. It’s a point about film context and artistry, idiots. And Chang’s comment is also not an insult at Watanabe’s talent, rather it can be interpreted again as a sign of how the film *wastes* his great talent (You seriously think a reviewer who writes for one of the top industry trades in the world wouldn’t know who Ken Watanabe is?).

  5. Brian Harrington says:

    Just on a factual point, the whole Catholic idea of purgatory is that there most definitely is an exit sign, you just don’t get to take that exit until you have purged yourself of all your conceits and are ready for heaven. Not having seen the film won’t comment further but given the subject material and story arc maybe less would have been more?

  6. Terry says:

    “Everytime I get out, they pull me back in”…Oh no wait that’s Steven Van Zandt. Sorry.

  7. David Gerard says:

    Reading this review, I am getting the impression that writer (and I use that term loosely) Justin Chang is a Gen-X, post journalism grad from some resumé boosting University, where his thesis was based on the portentous scribble of folks like Richard Schickel and David Denby, attempting to assimilate so-called intellectual discourse on the art of film critique, but coming off instead as just another bitchy reviewer who relies on sarcasm and thinly-veiled insults to compensate for lack of objective analysis.

    While I’ve no doubt there are a number of things which are problematic about Van Sant’s latest flick, from script execution to film editing and perhaps even some dramatic missteps, I find it interesting that Chang would call out a line spoken by actor Ken Watanabe as patronizing, yet seems to have no idea Watanabe is a Japanese actor of major renown who has been an Oscar and Japanese Academy award nominee. Secondly, if Chang had any understanding of the culture of depression and suicide, he would not find it so incredulous that in Japanese culture (and to some extent, American culture) loss of profession for a man is a major identity killer, and a legitimate catalyst for taking one’s life.

    Finally, if you think the film is (to quote a Sex Pistols song title) “pretty vacant”, then say so – without using character assassination and pointedly prejudicial bon mots to get your point across.

  8. Sandy Muller says:

    Matthew’s Buick ads are hilarious though!

    • Matthew’s Buick ads are Lincoln ads, wrong car co.

    • Mantle Head says:

      Chang’s OK… I read the script to this film and it’s a downer (no kidding, right?) It has some nice moments, but we’re talking about a film where a guy goes to a foreign forest to die… and reviews the relationship he had with his wife as he goes. I’m sure to a certain set it will be great… it is unique at least.

  9. Jimmy says:

    Well, first of all, an American citizen can’t buy a one way ticket to Japan unless they had Japanese residency. No travel agency will sell it to you, and no website would allow you to buy it. Even if by some miracle, you managed to get your hands on such a ticket, when you got to immigration, you would be refused entry because you have no onward flight ticket.

    Secondly, Aokigahara is not a soft walking, plush-like green forest. It’s mainly volcanic rock and very little growing there except some moss-like growth and lots of trees.

    • Mika Abe says:

      Sir,
      You are mistaken. I met my wife who had flown into Tokyo to teach English, on a one way ticket.
      Also, its not a true story. At least not to my knowledge.

  10. Moviesgogo says:

    Wow. I was on board with the movie review until you lost me at the racist comment there in parentheses. Justin Chang you are a racist and should pay the consequences of your actions.

  11. Peace Dog says:

    (“You don’t understand my culture,” he mutters, a line that sounds suspiciously like something only a white man could have written). The writer is super racist. Why is this OK with every one? Some one please speak up about this crap!

  12. Dana says:

    “milking the lush green scenery of Japan’s famous Aokigahara forest for all it’s worth” – I worked on this for over a month last summer and it was shot almost entirely in state parks across Massachusetts. Bless that tax incentive, it seems to be working!

    • Purgatoryisnice says:

      One of those state parks is aptly named “Purgatory”.

    • Alley says:

      They shot part of it in Japan, but the Japanese government does not allow filming in the Aokigahara, trying to discourage people from going there to commit suicide (they do anyway).

      • Dana says:

        A handful of people shot for all of 2 days in Japan for exterior stuff. Again, I worked on this, very very little was shot in Japan. Most of it was Worcester, MA.

  13. Phillip says:

    The author if this article doesn’t understand Asian culture either. To loose your job or get terminated is a grave dishonor. Leaders hold a demi god status to their underlings. A for your god to let you go… Could very well mean the end.

  14. Mo Gravy says:

    “… a line that sounds suspiciously like something only a white man could have written” sounds suspiciously like a comment by a vacuous schlemiel obsessed with identity politics.

  15. JB says:

    I think Chris Douridas was just the music supervisor, not the composer. He’s a radio dj who picks music. He doesn’t create it.

  16. Robert says:

    NO excuse to boo! Wow, how crass and stupid. This review actually makes me want to see the movie, btw, sick to death of fast cut explosion movies. Sounds like the Cannes crowd was raised on Transformer movies.

    • Ken says:

      Ohhh please, Robert – the Cannes crowd has been booing films for DECADES. It’s the European way. They take the art-form very passionately. The inverse is also true: if they like something, they’ll stand and cheer like maniacs

    • PG says:

      This review makes it sound like pretentious dreck, which I bet it is. I’m not buying a ticket now, and no one would based on that review. Clue to the wounded souls over the fact that Gus Van Zant’s latest film might well be dreary, boring, and no damn good- the notion that someone doesn’t respond to failed art doesn’t make them “Transformer” fans.

    • GeorgeValentin says:

      I agree. The more negative publicity means more enthusiasm to see the movie.

      • flipper says:

        MORE enthusiasm to see the movie? Gosh, I guess the film itself is a sort of suicide forest! Enjoy your wanderings, sucker.

  17. Bankee says:

    so should the snooty critic.

    • Robert says:

      Yeah, I wonder if Justin Chang was one of the one’s booing at a piece of art with the artists sitting right there. Unbelievable.

  18. spike says:

    Van Sant should get a job at McDonald’s

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