Saturday, August 27, 2016

Review: The Sea of Trees

Image courtesy of A24.
Despite what you may have heard - including those boos from last year's Cannes Film Festival - Gus Van Sant's "The Sea of Trees" is not a complete disaster. Yes, it's uneven and surely among the filmmaker's lesser efforts, but it has its moments, some decent performances and gorgeous cinematography.

The picture is no less than the third movie this year to make use of Japan's notorious Aokigahara forest, which is the world's number one spot for suicide, as a backdrop and - call it faint praise if you will - it's the film that does the best job of capturing that locale's ambience. Trees sway beautifully - or is it menacingly? - in the breeze and the vast amount of space taken up by the forest's trees do indeed give the appearance of a sea.

As the film opens, widower Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey), an adjunct science teacher, has arrived at the forest with the intention of ending his life after his wife (Naomi Watts) recently died. Unfortunately, while the visual beauty of the forest itself is entrancing, its introduction borders on the absurd as Arthur finds one corpse and several skeletal remains within the very short period of time he spends at the site. After arriving, he chooses a secluded spot and prepares to swallow a bottle of pills.

But just then, a man (Ken Watanabe) stumbles into his line of vision and appears to be in distress. Arthur asks if the man needs help and discovers that he has botched a wrist-slitting attempt and is now trying to find his way back out of the forest, but has gotten lost. The instinct to help another in need overcomes Arthur's own malaise and he sets out to help the man, known as Takumi, find his way out of Aokigahara.

In between their numerous scenes of falling onto rocks and accidentally poking themselves with sharp objects - seriously, these two face more bodily abuse than anyone since Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant" - we are privy to flashbacks in which Arthur's marriage falls apart. His wife is an alcoholic who resents his line of work and the fact that he'd had an affair years before and he has become fed up with her verbal abuse. But then she gets a cancer diagnosis and he decides to stick by her side.

The juxtaposition of these flashbacks with Arthur's walk through the woods is mostly jarring and the scenes between he and Watts's Joan are paint-by-number crumbling marriage and cancer sequences. However, as the film nears its final third, there are a few poignant moments that are involved in the story's twist ending, of sorts, which is both effective and silly. The finale manipulates, but it does so cleverly enough.

Van Sant tends to jump back and forth between studio films and the indie world and, during the course of his nearly 30-year career, he has been responsible for some terrific works: "Drugstore Cowboy," "My Own Private Idaho," "Good Will Hunting," "Milk" and "Elephant." As I said before, "The Sea of Trees" is one of his lesser works - somewhere in the same zone as his "Psycho" remake and "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" - but it's not a complete bust. McConaughey provides some solid work - especially during a campfire monologue - and there's a fair amount of gorgeous scenery to help us forget some of the picture's sillier plot contrivances. It's a minor film from a major director.

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