The Sea of Trees

The Sea of Trees ★★

37/100

[Originally written as part of my third dispatch from Cannes '15 for The Dissolve.]

Every year at Cannes, at least one Competition title gets booed, inspiring a round of handwringing once word gets out. Personally, I never boo—but, then, I almost never applaud, either, unless I know that the cast and crew is present. After all, the closing credits don’t particularly care what I think. Hearing the lusty boos that erupted at the end of Gus Van Sant’s The Sea Of Trees, however, I finally understood the communal nature of this admittedly obnoxious ritual. Mediocre films are met with the silence of indifference, but people feel the need to acknowledge a memorably awful experience with something more like an ovation. Booing is a way for the audience to collectively confirm, among themselves, in the heat of the moment, that they’ve just witnessed a disasterpiece.

Not so much “from the director of the Palme d’Or-winning Elephant” (or even “from the director of that really ill-advised Psycho remake”) as it is “from the writer of ATM,” The Sea Of Trees stars Matthew McConaughey as Arthur Brennan, a science teacher who, as the movie begins, embarks on what is clearly a one-way trip to Japan. His intentions are obvious even to those viewers unfamiliar with the real-life location where he ends up: Aokigahara, a large forest at the base of Mount Fuji where so many people commit suicide annually that the government has erected signs begging visitors to reconsider. There wouldn’t be much of a movie if Arthur just offed himself, however, so no sooner has he picked a spot for his demise than he encounters a Japanese salaryman, Takumi Nakamara (Ken Watanabe), who’s changed his mind about dying and is desperately trying to find his way out. The rest of the movie alternates present-tense scenes of Arthur struggling to keep Takumi alive—gradually regaining his own will to live in the process, as the rules of dramaturgy demand—with flashbacks to Arthur’s troubled marriage to Joan (Naomi Watts), revealing the tragic series of events that made him decide to end it all.

It’s not impossible that a worthwhile movie could have been made from that scenario, maudlin and predictable though it is. And Van Sant, shooting mostly in Massachusetts (Japan wasn’t about to let a film crew into Aokigahara, which is a national embarrassment), generates some creepy atmosphere early on, as Arthur wanders around the forest finding the corpses of his recent predecessors. It’s Chris Sparling’s wretched screenplay (a 2013 Black List selection, incredibly) that makes The Sea Of Trees a fiasco for the ages. For a long time, the film is merely tiresome, shifting wearily back and forth between Arthur and Joan’s petty bickering in the flashbacks and Arthur’s long-winded, monotonous monologues about regret in the present. (Neither McConaughey nor Watts can do anything with their thinly conceived characters, while Watanabe is little more than a human sounding board.) The pain and hilarity arrive in earnest during the last half hour, as Sparling first engineers one of the cheapest bits of dramatic irony in cinema history, then follows it up with a sublimely idiotic twist that combines the dopiest instincts of M. Night Shyamalan and Nicholas Sparks. The Sea Of Trees has already been picked up by Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions [AUG 2016: though they wound up selling it to A24 after seeing countless reviews like this one], so I’ll leave The Reveal to whoever winds up reviewing it in commercial release [AUG 2016: unless of course the site no longer exists by then :( ]…but I must confess that I feel some affection for this misbegotten picture. It’s so damn dumb, and so blissfully ignorant of its stupidity, that it becomes almost perversely touching.

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