Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: Chris Sparling
The Sea of Trees is emotionally engaging, for what that’s worth. We’re all used to seeing Matthew McConaughey be dry and affectionless. It’s kind of his thing. At this point we might as well say that any cinematic character being dry and affectionless is pulling a McConaughey from now until the end of time. Besides being dry and affectionless we enjoy seeing Matthew McConaughey be “manly” and take action. Unfortunately, there’s no action here. It’s one really big, really long conversation. That’s it. That’s the whole movie.
This go round he stars as a dry and affectionless school teacher named Arthur Brennan who journeys to Japan’s labyrinthine Suicide Forest to join the big campfire in the sky. Deep in the bowels of said forest Arthur stumbles upon an equally troubled and wounded stranger (Ken Watanabe). The hours they share have a lasting impact on both men, but ultimately kind of make us just groan.
On the somewhat bright side, the storyline isn’t overtly racist, which is something you might expect from a film where a white guy goes to Japan for a spiritual purpose. The Sea of Trees is too grim and takes itself too seriously to lend itself to stereotypes.
That being said, the one major minority character is horribly mishandled and is perhaps the one character that the film fails. Ken Watanabe’s stranger, Takumi Nakamura, provides an excellent black mirror reflection of Arthur. Watanabe offers a gripping performance full of both poignancy and desperation. There’s lots of snot and tears involved in this movie. A good 75% of it belongs to Watanabe. Unfortunately, very early on in the film, it becomes clear that he’s just Arthur’s relatively unfleshed out guardian angel. The archetypal minority companion character whose only role is to assist his white friend with finding himself.
As the film plods to it’s conclusion, it becomes clear that Watanabe actually meant Arthur’s relatively unfleshed out guardian angel. A cheesy twist instead of just actually writing a multi-faceted minority character with hopes and dreams and goals of his own to achieve? In the words of like any black person ever: not a good look, fam.
The rest of the film takes place within tense flashbacks between Arthur and his wife. Joan (Naomi Watts) is the film’s only saving grace. Watts delivers a taut performance as a passive-aggressive woman whose disappointment in her husband’s stagnant career and character flaws has driven her to alcoholism. It’s unclear at first whether the viewer is supposed to fall prey to She’s A Bitch Because I Say So Syndrome, which is the cultural phenomenon that makes any female character who disagrees with the main male character out to be the villain, no matter how disturbed and twisted the main male character has become, a la Skyler White from Breaking Bad. But as the narrative unfolds, it becomes impossible for the viewer not to care for her. Or at least pity her.
McConaughey and Watts’ chemistry, and the believability of their viciousness towards one another, crackles onscreen and creates the perfect backdrop to the unravelling mystery of what irreparable tragedy has dragged Arthur across thousands of miles to seek an uncertain end. It’s unfortunate then, that the secret of their marital woes can be easily telegraphed.
That is the major problem with this film, and all films like it. The Sea of Trees relies heavily on clichés to make its point: flowers literally growing in the ugliest and unlikeliest of places; the great debate on the existence of God/religion vs science/what happens to our souls after we die; a character literally saying “It’s not that I wanted to die, I just didn’t want to live”; and the well-worn trope of a man facing seemingly inevitable death before he realizes how desperately he wants to stay alive.
Despite the obviousness of it all, the film does a good enough job exploring one of cinema’s darkest themes: the meaningless cruelty of man and how easy it is to punish the ones we love, simply because they love us.
Does it bring anything new or innovative to the genre? No. Still, viewers will grow a reluctant soft spot for McConaughey’s damaged anti-hero and begin to root for him in earnest as he fights to survive the forest he once wished would swallow him whole.