Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Movie Review: The Sea Of Trees (2016)



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Gus Van Sant is easily one of the most frustrating filmmakers in the history of the medium. Not necessarily because his work is out-and-out frustrating, although it sometimes is, but rather because of the wild inconsistency throughout his filmography. He has had some seriously incredible ideas behind his films and has even given us some great works, but good lord, has he also delivered some of the worst or otherwise weirdest films I’ve come across. I don’t think any director who can make something as soul-crushingly dull as Gerry can be trusted, and Even Cowgirls Get The Blues is strange beyond definable terms and another sign that, when not fishing for Oscars, the man is kind of insane. Yeah, needless to say, my scepticism is even greater than usual on this one, and considering this has been regarded as his worst film… this is not going to end well. This is The Sea Of Trees.


The plot: Arthur (Matthew McConaughey), a teacher from America, has flown to Tokyo in order to end his life in the infamous Aokigahara Forest, also known as the Suicide Forest. As he prepares to commit suicide, he comes across Japanese businessman Takumi (Ken Watanabe) and while they connect over their respective miseries, we learn just why Arthur decided to do all this.

The acting here is honestly the best thing to be found here, and even then it has its issues. McConaughey apparently has been completely unable to give a bad performance since his career resurgence back with Killer Joe and this is no exception as, more so through his looks than his words, he absolutely nails the feelings of grief and despair. Watanabe, while a tad stereotypical as Arthur’s local connection (his reason for suicide is tied into “honour”, for crying out lad) has decent chemistry with McConaughey and considering their on-screen bonding is what ends up fuelling at least half of the film, he does what needs to be done here. Naomi Watts as Arthur’s wife Joan is really damn good in her role, even how inconsistent it can be, and she basically runs a master class in self-righteous passive-aggression that, while thoroughly unlikeable, at least feels like the actions of a human being with how it’s pared back just enough to keep it from melodrama. Barely enough, but still.

While I may have my lingering gripes with Van Sant as a storyteller, he has always had a consistent track record for visuals and this is yet another striking example of that. It may not have filmed in the actual Aokigahara Forest, but it certainly looks and feels like it with how incredibly eerie and deeply unsettling the place looks. In fact, I’m not entirely sure why, but the place is actually creepier during the daytime than at night: Sure, it presents its own challenges when the sun goes down, but the way the ‘strange fruit’ on the trees and the desolate atmosphere of the setting is shown through natural light makes it that much eerier. As for the shots of Arthur and Joan’s home life, while looking appropriately lived-in, they end up serving as a nice and intentional double-edged effect in how it contrasts with what goes on inside that house.

The drama is at once made true and made false as the film goes on, and oddly enough for the exact same reason: The characters. Arthur gets a real emotional workout with everything that we see happen to him, both past and present, but the fact that Joan is introduced in as vile a way as she is, before just suddenly being on good terms with her husband, ends up robbing the story of a lot of its weight. It doesn’t help that, with the order that the events are presented to us in, the tension is pretty much gone since we know full well what happens to her. In fact, that point ends up suffering because of the weird ways it tries to throw us off which inspire more laughs than gasps; no joke, this is the kind of progression that I’d expect to see in a cheesy soap opera, not a deadpan-serious drama involving suicide.

This is furthered by how the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with its main concept. It’s like Van Sant and writer Chris Sparling just had a main idea about setting a film in the notorious Suicide Forest but didn’t know how to fill it out from there. As such, it keeps jumping in tone and source of drama in a way that isn’t natural in the slightest. In fact, I can only really define it as manipulative because it feels like these scenes exist for no other reason than to make the audience feel melancholy. No real thread connecting in them in any substantial-enough way, just a want to connect with the viewer by any means necessary. That lack of tonal continuity would probably go to explain why Joan’s character is portrayed as sloppily as it is.

All in all, it has a decent concept with plenty of cinematic possibilities but the filmmakers don’t seem to have any real idea on how to use it. The acting is very good and there are a couple of moments that reach true poignancy, but overall it’s just a clumsy and somewhat manipulative mess of a feature. It’s better than Shin Godzilla, as this still isn’t as tonally confused as that film was, both textually and production-wise. Then again, seeing bug-eyed rubber ghosts might have made this a bit more entertaining to sit through, but I digress. However, since this did end up ultimately wasting a good idea, it falls short of Warcraft which, while also a touch underutilized, still did more with its main conceit than this.

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