When The Sea of Trees debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, critics drowned out the dialogue with laughs and jeers. Boos are common at Cannes, but the ones for this film echoed long after its premiere. Playing in only 101 theaters nationwide — including two here in Indiana — the film is slowly dying, making less money every day and racking up negative reactions. It currently has a single-digit score on Rotten Tomatoes. Let’s hope this review bumps it up a bit.
First, director Gus Van Sant is no stranger to death. Like his fly-on-the-wall look at the Columbine killings (Elephant) or his fictional meditation on Kurt Cobain’s suicide (Last Days), The Sea of Trees is a morbid fantasy with firm roots in reality.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Arthur Brennan, a depressed science professor who sets off to Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, which is synonymous with suicide. (About 100 bodies turn up in the woods every year.) Arthur’s suicide attempt is interrupted when he sees a Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe) stumbling through the forest, leaving a trail of blood behind him.
As he tries to lead Takumi back to safety, the mysterious man digs into Arthur’s past, slowly uncovering the source of his sorrow. We learn that the brunt of it comes from his wife, Joan (Naomi Watts), who can’t wash down her resentment toward him, no matter how much she drinks. Long after his affair with a colleague, the cloud over their life grows darker when she is diagnosed with a brain tumor.
As the film hops back and forth between the forest and Arthur’s home, it feels surreal — like the dreamy flash of the past that people experience before death. The lush scenery is a glimpse of otherworldly heaven amid the pain of ordinary life. With the help of cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, Van Sant creates a hypnotically calm atmosphere in the forest — a striking contrast to the storm surrounding Arthur and Joan’s marriage.
Arthur’s trip through the woods — and his past — leads to majestic, mystical territory. As the film moves away from domestic drama and explores spiritual ground, it becomes breathtakingly larger than life. Screenwriter Chris Sparling finds a delicate balance between quiet, intimate human drama and an epic, ethereal journey.
The film’s spiritual “twists” may feel sappy at first, but it earns those sentimental moments. McConaughey’s tender, poignant performance anchors the film, grounding it in emotional reality whenever it seems like it’s about to go off the rails. The story veers into some bold, outlandish directions, but he makes you believe in it every step of the way.
This is an easy movie to dismiss. Most critics are calling it corny, dull, depressing, etc. But if you look past the surface, dig deeper and trust its mysterious, supernatural mission, it could make for one of the most emotional experiences you’ll have at the movies this year.
Now Showing at AMC Showplace Kokomo 12 and AMC Showplace Muncie 12; Also available on Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube