As a film critic based in Indianapolis, one of my greatest challenges can be avoiding reviews and other literary propaganda when it comes to indie studio releases such as this film, Gus Van Sant's The Sea of Trees, an A24 release opening in Indiana this Friday, September 2nd, in theatres in Kokomo, Marion, Indianapolis, Muncie and Evansville.
Critically panned after its Cannes Film Festival debut and currently garnering mostly negative reviews according to both RottenTomatoes and Metacritic, The Sea of Trees is a challenging film yet a film that is far more satisfying than its current reviews would indicate. The film stars Matthew McConaughey as Arthur Brennan, an American professor who travels to Japan's Aokigahara forest, a real forest in Japan near the foot of Mt. Fuji that is known as a popular place for suicide. Arriving at the forest, Brennan's plans are interrupted when he encounters a family man, Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), who has arrived in the forest with similar plans. The two men embark on a journey of both self-reflection and survival.
If it sounds like The Sea of Trees mirrors another Van Sant journey film, the meditative Gerry, rest assured that despite their skeletal similarities they are, in fact, two very different films.
It's easy to understand why The Sea of Trees is proving to be a rather wildly unpopular film, though for those who resonate with its themes it may very well be a film that you find yourself immersed into despite Van Sant's stark, unsympathetic yet reflective and somber approach to telling the story from Chris Sparling. Sparling's script, which had been placed on the prized The Black List in 2013, is nearly as silent as the Aokigahara forest itself. Known for its disorienting qualities and isolated location. Takumni and Arthur are isolated men, if not literally then certainly emotionally, and it's this isolation, especially for Arthur, that is portrayed through somewhat predictable yet reasonably effective flashback sequences featuring Brennan's real estate agent wife (Naomi Watts), who increasingly regrets her breadwinner status while upping her alcohol intake and facing other obstacles that unfold throughout the film.
It's rare that a filmmaker would take an almost placid approach to such a potentially emotion-driven film, yet Van Sant's approach takes us from observers to participants in the journey.
The Sea of Trees opened in New York and L.A. on August 26th and is also available for streaming through Amazon, though the film's immersive qualities play best on the big screen.
McConaughey was cast in the film just before Dallas Buyers Club sealed the fact that he'd successfully transitioned from half-assed rom-coms to films worthy of his always evident immense talent. McConaughey is understated here as he serves up a performance that captures the tonal shifting evident in Sparling's uneven yet involving script. Watanabe, while not being tasked with near the shifting required of McConaughey, is solid as a supporting player and Naomi Watts does an admirable job of taking a potentially one-note role and making a symphony out of it.
While Van Sant is decidedly understated, the score from Mason Bates frequently crosses the line into histrionic, an occasionally effective approach yet occasionally an approach that overly dominates the film.
On the flip side, D.P. Kasper Tuxen's lensing is mesmerizing, a character unto itself, transforming scenes largely shot in Northeastern Massachusetts into an ethereal, mystical land.
Part of the wonder of The Sea of Trees is that Van Sant refuses to ever actually define the journey for his characters or for his audience, an approach that may leave some feeling immensely dissatisfied by film's end and some wrestling with exactly what was real and exactly what may have been fantasy. Regardless of what feels true for you, The Sea of Trees ends as it begins - a reflective journey through guilt and grief that will leave you reflecting upon your own journey long after the closing credits have rolled by.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic