adelinetaylorh’s review published on Letterboxd:
Freedom from guilt and/or pain through means of spiritual reflection is totally alright. It's a respectable arc that can amplify the narrative it services... but loosen your directorial grip for a second and you'll magnify the wrong things. The lens may focus on the mundane in a seemingly accidental manner, despair found in simple acts of nature could come off as slapstick, but largely: everything might be soaked in a blatancy and self-obsessive vibe that'll paint familiar beats with a shade of pretension reading, "This means something, what you're looking at right now means something, I hope" instead of, "Here's a daring visual; dig in."
Enter The Sea of Trees to fit that bill, a story of intimacy buried under crushing distance (and the emotional reverberations of that burial) that plays like an episode of The Three Stooges when it's not shouting self-analysis in your face through dialogue or wandering through trees in search of a grander statement. At a campfire, set to a somewhat subtle McConaughey monologue, it's suddenly more than all of that, but moments later forgets to be.
What Gus Vant Sant might have failed to understand here is that a mostly observant camera doesn't complement something that balances the spiritual and the personal; for both to work we should be brought in close to moments or actions of note and be blindsided by larger implications, discussions, or ideas. Take a moment in which Matthew McConaughey falls off of a small cliff & Ken Watanabe pursues him: Practically every shot is a wide one, uninvolved, from a distance. Take a conversation in a car between McConaughey & Naomi Watts: The whole thing is shot from the backseat, and we only see profiles. Take a scene in which a tragedy occurs: Handheld medium shots until our character runs toward the victims and we're greeted with one, lone close-up. I'm not gonna dictate how you read the language these scenes are using, but I read them as incredibly detached, lazy, watching from afar while not digging into their subjects. Drama becomes melodrama in an instant. When we're on a beautiful close-up of our lead wearing glasses that reflect a campfire, perfectly tight to match the personal details he's divulging, however... then I feel something.
Closing observations: McConaughey's shouts are hilarious, and at one point he literally types "a perfect place... to die" into Google like he's doing research for a science project.