Having already been labeled a catastrophe due to its paltry box-office grosses, Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees is not without interest, but this meditation on mortality would have been a tough sell in any case, regardless of the cool reception the film received at Cannes earlier this year.
Matthew McConaughey, his inherent ebullience carefully held in check, plays Arthur Brennan, a depressed and disillusioned American who flies to Tokyo – one way – to visit the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mount Fuji, known worldwide as “the Suicide Forest” (also the setting for the horror film The Forest, released earlier this year).
Needless to say, Arthur expects this to be his first and last visit, and is prepared to end it all when he encounters Takumi Nakamora (Ken Watanabe), a disheveled and bleeding stranger apparently there for the same purpose.
As Arthur tends Takumi’s injuries and as they engage in a philosophical discussion of life and death, Arthur reflects on the circumstances that have brought him to this emotional state, with flashbacks of his troubled marriage to Joan (Naomi Watts) filling in the blanks. It might be said that Arthur was hit, not just with a whammy but a double whammy.
Producer Chris Sparling’s screenplay is more pretentious than profound, although it’s not for lack of effort. It’s not long before Arthur comes to discover (or re-discover) just how precious life is, as well as the importance of life’s struggles. That’s when the film’s symbolism kicks into high gear.
The conclusion does bring the story full circle (at last!), and there’s no denying the sincere conviction with which McConaughey, Watts and Watanabe bring to their roles, but despite its noble intentions – to say nothing of Kasper Tuxen’s excellent cinematography – The Sea of Trees is a misfire. !
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