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The Sea of Trees

by Glenn Erickson Nov 01, 2016


Where’s M. Night Shyamalan when we need him? Gus Van Sant’s spiritual journey through a death forest is pretty to look at, nicely acted… and Trite with a capital T. Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts are prominent on the marquee, but co-star Ken Watanabe gets shunted aside.

The Sea of Trees
2015 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 110 min. / Street Date November 1, 2016 / 24.99
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts, James Saito.
Kasper Tuxen
Film Editor Pietro Scalia
Original Music Mason Bates
Written by Chris Sparling
Produced by F. Gary Gray, Kevin Halloran, Ken Kao, Gil Netter, Thomas Patrick Smith
Directed by Gus Van Sant

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Reviewers pretty much stomped on Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees from last year. Although I didn’t see a single notice with the title “Can’t See the Forest for the Trees,” that’s not an inapt description. Writer Chris Sparling has done interesting movies with gimmicks like being buried alive, trapped in an ATM booth and honoring a suicide pledge, and here it looks as if the inspiration was a Death Forest in Japan. Top talent including the ultra-hot Matthew McConaghey jumped at this show, which is beautifully photographed, nicely directed and acted with taste and discretion. But its basic idea is a hoary ghost story with a feeble twist that M. Night Shyamalan might have tried on for size. When the heartfelt performances add up to a well intended but vaguely insulting fairy tale, viewers can be forgiven for groaning out loud. It’s very much like Shyamalan’s 2004 The Village: after we guess what’s happening, the only tension is within ourselves. The filmmakers can’t be taking this in that direction, can they? Oh yes they can.

Unshaven, dazed and unhappy Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaghey) ditches his car, buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo and from there takes a taxi to the forest of Aokogihara, where he finds the paths lined with multi-lingual signs urging visitors not to take their lives. He prepares to do just that with some pills, when he encounters Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), a failed suicide by wrist slashing, who now wants to go home to his family but is weak and disoriented. Arthur elects to help Takumi but finds he’s completely disoriented. They stumble through the quiet forest, sustaining injuries and suffering a flash flood, as they learn about each other. Arthur was the non-achiever in a failing marriage, trading psychological abuse with his resentful wife Joan (Naomi Watts). Then she was hit with the possibility of a malignant brain tumor, and the two began to bond anew while awaiting a biopsy. Arthur and Takumi must steal clothing from the corpses they find in the forest. Takumi talks about spirits of the dead that are rumored to be afoot in this strange place of deathly beauty. After a second fall, Arthur decides to leave his new friend behind, and crawl out. Do they have a chance?

Well, at least it’s not one of those movies where we find out everyone’s been dead from the beginning, like the 1944 Between Two Worlds. As a survival story, it’s difficult to empathize with a guy who’s gone to such extreme lengths to kill himself, just to change his mind because (surprise) he meets a fellow potential suicide. Ken Watanabe’s Takumi is a regular fountain of poetic clues, as when he sings “Stairway to Paradise” and even identifies it as being from the old musical An American in Paris. When Arthur balks at notions of spirits flitting about the forest, Takumi responds with such gems of wisdom as, ‘you do not understand our culture.’

The best part of the movie is the flashbacks to Arthur’s relationship to Joan. Even though the scenes are sketchy the pair do well with their dysfunctional relationship. Joan is aggressive and alcoholic, Arthur is passive and hurt, and both spout plenty of marriage-ending verbal cruelty. But it is sketchy and brief. When the medical troubles begin, we the audience can tell that we’re being led down the garden path. The contrivances stack up thick and fast.

Talk about your first-world problems: the Brennans live in a dream house on a river or pond that would in itself dissuade any sane person from thoughts of suicide. I know I’m revealing a class/economic resentment of my own, but I think that the fact that Arthur has the means to fly halfway around the world to die makes him less sympathetic. Twenty minutes into the film, we normal citizens are still worrying that he’s going to have to call a locksmith because he’s left his keys in his car. The fact that Arthur hasn’t one close friend or family member to watch out for him also seems contrived, but I guess is acceptable. Not so palatable is an unexpected road event that made me laugh, for the wrong reasons. Anybody remember the classic National Lampoon article How to Write Good?”, specifically Lesson 2?

The survival part of the story is handled fairly well, and I must admire how director Gus Van Sant keeps us wandering through a homogenous forest for the better part of 90 minutes without boring us to tears. But it’s nothing like Naomi Watts’ riveting ordeal in 2010’s The Impossible, a disaster-survival mini-epic with precious life lessons that emerge naturally. The supposedly haunted forest at the base of Mt. Fuji is apparently real, and has signage discouraging potential suicides. I don’t know how they handle the occasional jumpers at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, but it is a serious issue. I assume the city’s taxi drivers are warned about fares asking to be taken only halfway across the bridge. In Sea of Trees the clear emotional case Arthur has no problem getting himself dropped off out in Suicide Central, with no obvious way of getting back. I’d fault the Japanese taxi driver, but he has to make a living too. They have cameras at the trailheads, and rangers to monitor things, but they don’t seem very effective. The forest is a regular Gothic death garden, with gnarly corpses scattered about like attractions on Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland.

Remember the novel You Only Live Twice? In Ian Fleming’s highly prejudiced reading of the ‘sinister oriental disregard for human life,’ Ernst Stavro Blofeld has taken the identity of Dr. Shatterhand, and is holed up in a castle with forested areas and a garden that unhappy lovers and failed exam students go to, to kill themselves. Fleming gives the garden poisonous plants, boiling volcanic vents and other deadly features; there’s no shortage of suicidal customers. I say this because, despite the respectful Japanese characters we see, it still seems as if Japan is a hot destination for self-icide tourism. In other words, the attempt to exoticize the morbidity with the Japanese background is yet another bogus contrivance.

Sea of Trees isn’t quite a Film Blanc, with a fully-elaborated fantasy about the afterlife. It’s instead that weak sister genre of ghost stories that ask the reader or viewer to believe that amazing artifacts prove that something survives beyond death, and that we can rest assured that we will meet our departed loved ones again. People with strong religious beliefs don’t need these modern myths, which pretend to be ‘inspirational’ but are really just told for the sake of a chilling good story. There’s a difference between sentimentalizing our difficulty with accepting death, and encouraging outright irrational thinking. Remember the lame-but-intriguing novelty ballads about teenage lost loves and ghost dates? There’s ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’, ‘Teen Angel’ and especially ‘Laurie’, with its ‘ uncanny evidence’ of a sweater loaned to a girl who couldn’t possibly have been alive. An alternate cynical read of Laurie is that she and her family laugh themselves silly creeping out gullible teenage boys.

Unfortunately, the best that The Sea of Trees has to offer is a litany of ‘uncanny’ items proving something-or-other, like the lyric about a stairway to paradise, and a children’s book with an unexplainable connection. Of course it’s explainable — in terms of hackneyed story construction. Those trying to tease us with the supernatural are especially fond of this gimmick.

What at first seems potentially expressive and profound … ain’t. The Sea of Trees is an admirable production, but I have to admit at how shallow it is. Gus Van Sant has made some excellent pictures. Did he really expect adult audiences to embrace this?

Lionsgate’s Blu-ray of The Sea of Trees looks great in HD. Filmed at least partly on an advanced Red Camera, it makes the haunted forest into an interesting setting, clean and fresh, yet devoid of animals and most ground plants, except for the occasional symbolic flower. The makeup on the injured pair in the woods is convincing. The soundtrack is also well arranged, so much so that a wailing voice heard in the forest indeed achieves the intended ambiguous quality.

The one extra on the disc is a making-of featurette. I openly admit that I wasn’t disappointed in The Sea of Trees until it was almost over, and that my feeling of being emotionally cheated surely led to my possibly over-thinking the film (and getting clever with the book and song references). For all I know, Van Sant’s show will be discovered on home video and become a timeless classic. Strange things happen in this world, you know.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Sea of Trees Blu-ray
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Making-of featurette
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: October 31, 2016 Boo!

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.