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.