Like finding a ball gag in your dad’s nightstand, The Sea of Trees is the kind of movie that permanently alters your perception of everyone involved.
From director Gus van Sant to actors Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe and Naomi Watts to distributor A24, there’s just a chain of people who should have taken one look at what’s going on with this movie and run miles in the other direction. I’m earnestly baffled and impressed that, with the pedigree on display here, not one single person ever seemed to try to make something redeemable out of it.
This isn’t some franchise picture that would likely be successful no matter what the critics thought or something that has enough of a built-in audience that it’ll be fine. This is ostensibly a prestige picture that lives or dies on being a love of tastemakers and a work of quality. But Sea of Trees is just such a fundamental, horrifying misfire on every level involved that it’s shocking that it ever saw the light of day.
The Sea of Trees is a tale of Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey), a Physics adjunct in the midst of a deep depression after the death of his wife Joan (Naomi Watts). He goes to Japan to die in the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mount Fuji. While beginning his suicide, he encounters Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese man stumbling through the forest after his own attempt who has decided to live. Brennan helps Nakamaura out of the forest and on his way embarks on a journey of self-discovery as he relives the memories of his last days with his wife. Spoiler alert: They were not positive.
Let’s just go from the bottom up with this one. Start at the story level. Sea of Trees wants to be roughly three different movies. All in one, it’s a survival thriller, a disease weepy, and a relationship drama. Yet, remarkably, it can’t find a compelling version of any of those.
As a survival thriller, it doesn’t have a proper escalation nor a sense that their environment is dangerous. It’s a forest we’re told is cold and dangerous, yet there’s no sense that the danger is organic to the world, but rather the machinations of a screenwriter. There’s nothing compelling about it, nothing visceral on their danger. We’re just told it’s dangerous and bad things happen to our heroes because they’re kind of dumb.
As a disease weepy, it’s practically nothing. The disease is so deeply unspecified and there’s no mediation on the death, no idea of what it means. Death is a plot mechanism and not a particularly good one. The Sea of Trees meditates that death is sad and grief is hard, but in ways that feel like no one involved has experienced death. Also, the disease doesn’t ultimately matter, in a way that’s so badly telegraphed that it had me laughing when it happened.
As a relationship drama, man, who gives a fuck? This movie gives us the ending and all the stakes in advance and never gives us a reason to care about the two of them. Which is the point on Naomi Watts’ end, but Arthur Brennan seems to be a character that solely revolves around being filled out with McConaughey’s dramatic tendencies. I can’t remember a single identifiable trait or reason to care about his redemption in the movie. A relationship drama only works if there’s meaning to the relationship on the audience’s end. There’s not. Nothing. Zero.
Perhaps the worst of it though is when these things blend. That’s when The Sea of Trees becomes something truly awe-inspiring as a monolith of bad storytelling. These blend to build up to a twist that’s Nicholas-Sparksian in how cloying, manipulative, and just pointlessly bad it ultimately ends up being. The film telegraphs it so far in advance that it shouldn’t be surprising, but if you missed it, I don’t blame you. Paying attention to this film is a bit too much to ask of a reasonable moviegoer.
At least the filmmaking isn’t irredeemable. By which I mean it’s pretty. The setting is great and there are some fairly striking images of the forest our men inhabit. Not meaningful, but certainly striking.
Structurally however, this film is a nightmare. It runs over the same material again and again, retelling the meager few story points that it ultimately has. The flashbacks seem random, and also seem necessary to make much of what it’s trying to tell in the present day work, which means piecing them out holds back the weight rather than adds to it.
Let’s take one more shot while we’re at it. Holy shit is the score for this bad. I don’t often mention scores unless they’re exceptional, but this one is truly the pits. It’s cloying and overpowering, completely killing any atmosphere or delicacy that the movie could have had.
Much like the acting. The three at the center area all good actors, but every one of them seems to have nothing to do. Watanabe most criminally spends most of his time whimpering and moaning and saying cryptic things. McConaughey has no character and is largely just playing with his own tics and voice, when he’s not furrowing his brow and staring into the middle distance. He also gets like three really on-the-nose monologues, which may be the reason he decided to appear in this. Watts approaches the closest to fine, but it’s not good. She just has a angry, passive-aggressive character to play with, which can be fun.
Which leads us to A24. Why the fuck did they pick this one up? I get there are probably business reasons. But this is just bad. So bad. Unpleasant to watch and earning more derisive laughter than I’m ever comfortable admitting with a film. The Sea of Trees is just incompetent on a level no work with this pedigree should be. It’s something in the area of a student film pretending to be a prestige drama.