Nobody wants to admit it but there was a time when all of us self-styled award divas were convinced that Gus Van Sant’s latest film, The Sea of Trees, would be a huge Oscar contender.
Can you blame us?
Sure, you can! But, before you do, look at it from our point of view. Gus Van Sant is an acclaimed director who has split his time between Oscar-baity mainstream movies (Good Will Hunting, Milk) and deliberately obscure art films (Elephant). Two of Van Sant’s films have been nominated for best picture and he has twice been nominated for best director. The Sea of Trees stars two Oscar nominees (Naomi Watts and Ken Watanabe) and an Oscar winner (Matthew McConaughey). Much like the 2003 best picture nominee Lost in Translation, The Sea of Trees dealt with an American in Japan.
Yep, The Sea of Trees definitely looked like a contender but then it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and everything went downhill. The audience laughed. The critics booed. The negative reaction to the film quickly became legendary. Suddenly, it looked like this former Oscar contender would be lucky to even get an American release. Both Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions acquired the U.S. distribution rights and both companies dropped the film.
As a result, I found myself growing fascinated with The Sea of Trees. How bad could it be, I wondered. The fact that I might never get a chance to actually see the movie only added to my interest.
Well, fortunately, A24 eventually acquired the distribution rights to The Sea of Trees and they have now given the film a limited release in the States. I saw it last night and…
Seriously, after all the publicity and drama, I was expecting that The Sea of Trees would be a total and complete fiasco, one of those train wreck movies that you just can’t look away from. But, to be honest, The Sea of Trees is not an artistic fiasco in the style of Batman v Superman, nor is it unintentionally amusing like April Rain. Instead, it’s just a really boring film.
When I heard the plot of the film, I thought it would be an unofficial companion piece to Van Sant’s acclaimed Death Trilogy. In many ways, the plot sounded a lot like the plot of Gerry. Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) is a widowed professor who goes to Japan and visits Aokigahara Forest, the famous suicide forest at the foot of Mt. Fiji. Brennan is planning to end his life but he’s distracted by a Japanese man, Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), who claims to be lost in the forest. However, Nakamura has deep cuts on his wrists.
Brennan tries to help Nakamura find his way out of the forest but soon, the two of them discover themselves to be lost. Brennan spends a lot of time talking about life philosophy and I have to admit that I had a hard time following what he was saying because I was bored out of my mind. (It doesn’t help that McConaughey delivers his dialogue in the same style that he used for his infamous car commercials.) Nakamura doesn’t say much at all.
We also get several flashbacks to Brennan’s former life with his wife (played by Naomi Watts). The scenes all have a definite Nicholas Sparks feel to them. And yet, the flashbacks were the best part of the film because of the chemistry between McConaughey and Watts. The flashbacks are openly and unapologetically sentimental, without any of the pretension that mars the scenes between Brennan and Nakamura.
On a positive note, the film’s cinematography is often striking and the opening, with Brennan walking past random corpses while looking for the perfect place to end his life, is nicely done. Otherwise, almost the entire film is a misfire. Matthew McConaughey is one of those actors who is naturally so full of life that it’s hard to buy him as a suicidal academic and the film, which is already overlong at nearly two hours, drags. This is one of those films that has about a dozen false endings before the final credits finally roll. Meanwhile, as the action slowly plays out, the original score pounds you over the head. Important Important Important, the score demands even as the film fails to deliver.
And so, that’s The Sea of Trees.
It’s not exactly a fiasco but it is unforgivably forgettable.