The Sea Of Trees directed by Gus Van Sant (USA, 2015)

This movie bombed at the box office, was universally mauled by the critics and booed at the Cannes Film Festival. There have been other failures in Gus Van Sant’s otherwise illustrious career but nothing on such a disastrous scale. I will include spoilers in an attempt to identify what went so horribly wrong.

The Sea Of Trees is the semi-tragic story of Arthur Brennan, an American science lecturer played by Matthew McConaughey. (By the way, you can tell that this is McConaughey in intellectual mode by the fact that he wears spectacles throughout and never displays his pecs once. It’s not exactly method acting but such details matter!)

We follow Arthur to Aokigathara Forest near Mount Fiji where he intends to kill himself having Googled ‘a perfect place to die’ on the Internet. The chosen location comes as no great surprise. Given that ‘hari-kari’ and ‘kamikaze’ are two words that have entered the English language, it’s reasonable to assume that the Japanese know a thing or two when it comes to self annihilation.

Having flown (one way!) and found a spot in the forest he begins to take pills one at a time. It would have made for a very short movie if he’d gone through with this plan A and, sure enough, after pill number two he is interrupted by a wandering Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe).

From this Japanese man’s wounds, it looks as if he’s botched an attempt to slit his wrists. We come to learn that he had a change of heart although his back story is rapidly dealt with. This,after all, is an American story not a Japanese one.

Arthur directs this man to the path leading to the exit but, long story short, the two become lost in the woods frequently stumbling upon the remains of those who have been more successful at ending it all.

As the two struggle in search of a more conventional way out, the reasons for the American’s death wish become apparent in a series of flashbacks. Grief for the death of Arthur’s wife Joan Brennan (Naomi Watts) is the chief cause despite their marriage having been far from blissful.

Joan was a successful businesswoman and an alcoholic who resented being the breadwinner. The belittling of his ‘loser’ job was rooted in anger over a brief affair Arthur had.

We see some convincing embittered scenes between the two but they make the peace after she is successfully treated for a brain tumor. Having been given the all clear she is being transported by ambulance to another hospital with Arthur following in his car chatting to her on his mobile while driving. Perhaps another driver is similarly distracted because Arthur can only watch in horror as a truck ploughs into the ambulance to end for good any chances of Joan’s full recovery.

Far from being cruelly ironic, the bizarre nature of her demise appears to be ridiculously contrived and pointlessly melodramatic. From that moment on the movie nosedives towards a sentimentalized finale that further beggars belief.

Needless to say, Arthur survives his woodland misadventures thanks in no small part to his Japanese buddy who, it seems, was a kindly ghost on a mission to make him see the error of his ways.

Returning to his luxury home, Arthur’s pain and guilt is miraculously relieved by identifying (with a little help from the universe) his wife’s favorite book, color and season (Hansel & Gretel; yellow and Winter if you really want to know). Being aware of this trivia appears sufficient to allay any lingering guilt over the fact that he never really knew her.

The consequence is this surreal turn of events is that a movie that might have been an interesting reflection on the morality of suicide is blithely sacrificed in favour of the kind of pseudo religious mumbo-gumbo that you expect to find in an M.Night Shyamalan film.

In conclusion, despite the elegant cinematography and heavy hints that deeper themes were intended, I reluctantly have to agree with those who’ve labelled this shallow movie as a prize turkey.