MOVIE REVIEW: The Sea of Trees



When “The Sea of Trees” begins, Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey arrives at an airport, leaves his keys in his car, and books a one-way ticket to Tokyo with no luggage, little more than a few words, and many blank expressions.  His name is Arthur Brennan.  Upon landing, he immediately takes a ride to a forested park where other people have parked their cars also leaving their keys.  As Arthur walks down the woodland path, the first sign with English he comes upon reads: “The life you were given from your parents is precious.  Once more, meditate on your parents, your siblings, your children.  Think about them.  Do not suffer alone.”  

From that point on, we realize this isn’t a casual stroll for enjoyment.  This is a darker place of conflict instead of serenity.  You immediately ask what is this man’s frame of mind and what kind of journey he is on.  Such is the graveness opening “The Sea of Trees” from famed “Good Will Hunting” and “Milk” director Gus Van Sant.    

As the signs continue, Arthur encounters scattered remnants of other visitors, anything from photographs, clothes, and other personal effects.  Soon enough, he encounters corpses, some old and some new.  It hits you.  This is a place people come to die.  Point of fact, Arthur is stepping into the famed Aokigahara, known as the “Sea of Trees” or “Suicide Forest,” sitting in the northwest shadow of Mount Fuji.  

When Arthur stops and sits down to compose himself, he hears the wailing sounds of a injured man named Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), lost and looking for the trail that heads out and home.  Exhausted and weakened, he has slit his wrists and been in these woods for two days.  Arthur comes to his aid and decides to help him get out.  As they journey together and cued by Takumi’s questions, Arthur begins to remember and reflect on the moments of his life that brought him to this somber place.  Selective and aimless flashbacks take us out of the Aokigahara and reveal a contentious marriage to Joan, played by Naomi Watts.  She is a high-functioning alcoholic and the resentful breadwinner of the house versus Arthur’s place as a naive, idealistic, and underpaid adjunct professor that she has lost respect for.   

In the latest chapter of the McConaissance, the Oscar winner throws everything he can into this material, an original screenplay from “Buried” screenwriter Chris Sparling.  McConaughey’s investment is 100% in approaching the strenuous emotions required of both the demanding forest scenes and the wearisome domestic flashbacks of reconstructing love.  It is a decisively strained and mature performance that asks him to scale back his mega-watt charisma in an appropriate and appreciated manner.  His scenes with Naomi Watts contain excellent drama.

“The Sea of Trees” asks its audience to follow a defining moment of change for this heavily flawed and failed character, using Ken Watanabe as a mysterious foil.  The proud and respected Japanese performer always exudes a regal and honorable screen presence of esteem that can compete with a star like McConaughey step-for-step.  The film is not afraid to get preachy, posing Watanabe’s man of faith paired with McConaughey’s man of science as they talk death, love, morals, and life through their comparatively different lens as we wonder how it will all end.

The true purpose and destiny of these characters is hidden for much of the film, creating an atmosphere where tone can be misinterpreted or mishandled by Gus Van Sant and his fellow artists.  “The Sea of Trees” has moments where it leaps too far with unlikely survival film and rescue mission quandaries requiring life-saving conveniences and contrivances, including overly resourceful corpses, that reek of preposterousness.  Other extreme improbabilities and plot twists exist elsewhere to manipulatively twist the knife.  Those can be tough flaws that are hard to swallow.  Though “The Sea of Trees” cannot match the deeper symbolism and wondrous vibrancy of either film (nor does it need to), Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” and The Daniels’ “Swiss Army Man” are fair tangential parallels of thematic comparison.  All three films are essentially the same level of preposterousness.

The actions of Van Sant’s film might manipulate, but the themes behind them are unexpectedly powerful and resonating.  Even from grim origins, the spiritual brevity is a welcome stimulation.   Facing death or talking about death call upon uncomfortable emotions, ones that are difficult to express outwardly away from private settings.  Films that present mortality front and center are hard to wrap one’s arms around.  

Cloying as it may be to some, “The Sea of Trees” still contains a poetry and a message of forced reflection and vitality with incorporeal nudges.  These are touchy musings, for sure.  Audiences that have the reflective capacity for tapping into those feelings and fears will appreciate this effort and the dedicated performances.  Close-hearted and discomforted cynics that do not will flatly dismiss it instead and tell you (and it) to keep your feelings to yourself.  This writer is openly capable of being in the first audience welcoming the deep thoughts.

LESSON #1: WHAT TRIGGERS THE DECISION FOR ATTEMPTED SUICIDE-- Between our two men, one says that he doesn’t want to die, but he doesn’t want to live.  What is the subtle difference?  Coupled with life events and stresses, do people give up on you or did you give up on yourself to come to that potential decision?  What can talk someone out of that decision of suicide?

LESSON #2: THE DIFFICULTY OF FORCED REFLECTION-- One answer to Lesson #1 is each person’s internal mind and conscience.  The setting of this story forces Arthur to reflect on his current and past choices.  His mind races and darts from one difficult and unshakable memory to another.  Isolation fears and survival instincts trigger the forced reflection and heighten those mental struggles as well.

LESSON #3: GUILT SUPERSEDING GRIEF-- Simply put, Arthur is a character that is suffering.  His desperation has brought him to suicide.  Grief is a component, but his heaviest weight is guilt over grief.  Each of his memories, reflections, and realizations target moments where he let his anger and dissonance get in the way of properly expressing the love and forgiveness in his true heart that he meant to, and should have, put first ahead of his selfishness.