How is it possible for a film so filled to the brim with earnest emotions and sincerity of purpose to fumble and squander so much of its own vision? Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees is alternately moving and infuriating in its reflection on existence and the value of human life.
Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey), a middle aged professor of college physics, flies to Japan with little but the trench coat on his back, and no return ticket. He travels to Aokigahara Forest, which a Google search has promised him is “the perfect place to die.” As he ventures down the trail and into the forest, as he marches along his self-inflicted dead man’s walk, visual cues seen by Arthur are often very striking: beams of light peek through the branches of this sea of trees; deliberately placed warning signs urge pursuers of Harakiri to reconsider their lives; and a centered shot of a pair of gnarled, desiccated hands reaches towards the heavens in lingering post-mortem agony. This is when The Sea of Trees is at its most visually striking and thematically sobering, but once it concludes, this is also when the forest-bound segments of the film begin to deflate.
Sitting on a giant boulder, clutching a bottle of medicine in one hand and a bottle of water in the other, Arthur wrestles with doubts, and eases himself into the consumption of his pills, one by one. He is shortly interrupted by Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese man who, upon his unsuccessful suicide attempt by slashing his wrists, re-evaluates his life and importance to his wife Kiiro and daughter Suyu, and is desperately trying to find his way out of the forest. Arthur tries to help bring him to safety, and the two endure a battery of improbable calamities, including long falls that should have killed them on impact, and surviving flooding that carries them out of a cave where they sought refuge, and Arthur’s glasses breaking, but remaining fixed to his face.
While the two search for the path that leads away from the forest, Arthur relays scenes from his marriage that provide insight as to why he was determined to take his own life. Three years prior, Arthur committed an act of infidelity that has permanently damaged his relationship with his wife Joan (Naomi Watts, in peak form), and she is no longer able to trust him. They bicker bitterly and ceaselessly, generally over the most minor of incidences. Nevertheless, Arthur is still caring and full of love for Joan: one breathtakingly romantic scene shows Arthur arriving at their home to find Joan lying asleep on their couch, and he tenderly removes the Mac from her lap, the glasses from her head, and carefully covers her with the trench coat she once bought him, that she never thought he liked. Once she wakes, they strive over his lack of ambition and her functional alcoholism. In one of his most affecting moments, McConaughey’s Arthur recalls how he and Joan would carry out random acts of kindness for each other, the last of the bond holding them together, only neither of them would dare to thank the other for them.
While Van Sant occasionally displays his strong eye for images, here, his instincts do not extend to the film’s overall soundscape. The sound mix is poor: the delivery of dialogue, most noticeable in scenes set in the forest, is muffled by the bass in the sound, and is no saviour to McConaughey’s drawl and tendencies not to enunciate as clearly as he ought to. The most obvious offender (not only on an aural level, but overall) is the treacly musical scoring, so wrong for this film in the majority of its usage, which actively works against what is caught on camera, and often distorts the tone of many otherwise strong scenes.
The ensemble of mainly three actors is not particularly strong. Watanabe barely manages to register, while McConaughey is mostly just fine, except in the scenes where his attempts to vocalize physical pain are campy and laughable. It is almost another (superior) performance, altogether, when he shares the screen with Naomi Watts (the film’s actorly saving grace), and though this probably reflects more on her, their chemistry is dreamy and vital. Apart from one scene, where her wiping of Arthur’s hands when he spills gasoline on them while fuelling their vehicle is surprisingly sensual, Joan is introduced as a shrill harpy who has no qualms with humiliating him in front of their friends at a dinner party. It is a bit of “been there, done that”: the flaring nostrils and searing glares that worked so well for her in Mulholland Dr. feel rather stale, here. Thankfully, these are the only weak beats in her performance. Upon the identification of a growth in her brain, Watts is finally given challenging, emotional material that she delivers exquisitely. Without having to do too much else, her presence is inherently compelling and moving in a scene when she and McConaughey’s Arthur look through photos from the early stages of their marriage. Her best moment, and a formative beat in their trajectory as a couple, occurs when she opens up about her deepest fears, the night before she is about to undergo an invasive, though compulsory surgery. There is a great probability that Joan may die on the operating table, but death itself is not what most terrifies her. She confides that her greatest fear is to die in a hospital, surrounded by people who are merely obligated to be there. Her heartfelt pleas for Arthur to promise her that he will die in a special place are devastating, and a plot catalyst for understanding why Arthur plans his morbid pilgrimage to the Aokigahara Forest. Unfortunately, the beauty of her commitment to this material is compromised in a gratuitous, unnecessary coda in her performance that is one of the most baffling blunders The Sea of Trees commits, especially considering that it happens as they share a passionately wistful exchange that could have been the summit of their celluloid magnetism.
While it is full of glaring errors, The Sea of Trees is still able to find moments where it achieves its cinematic goals. The film is often frustrating to watch, but partially atones for this when it mounts images and scenes that can be deeply moving. The contrivances and misfires of this film are unfortunate, but they cannot compare to the transcendence of its highs. Amidst all the rubble of its crashing stones and broken branches, there is a masterpiece, somewhere, within The Sea of Trees.