CANNES – In the 25 years since his breakthrough film “Drugstore Cowboy” was released, Gus Van Sant has spent his time bouncing back and forth between the independent film world and more distinctly commercial endeavors. The style and tone of each work has clearly been dictated on the audience it's intended for and you can argue he”s only attempted to meet in the middle a few times, with the Oscar-nominated “Milk” or “Good Will Hunting.” Van Sant”s latest work, “The Sea of Trees,” sadly proves what a dicey proposition that can be.
The film begins with a sullen Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) arriving at an airport. He leaves his keys in his car. He has no bags. There is no return ticket for his flight. Arthur is going to Japan and he has no plans on coming back. What he intends to do becomes more clear when he arrives at the Aokigahara forest in Japan. Seemingly alone, Arthur finds a peaceful spot on a rock and sits down. He pulls out a bottle of water, a bottle of prescription medicine and pulls a package out of his jacket, placing it next to him. Even if a viewer is unaware that Aokigahara is also known as the “Suicide Forest,” what Arthur has planned will be painfully obvious.
One by one Arthur begins to take his pills. He's barely started when out of the corner of his eye he spots a Japanese man struggling in the distance, dressed in a business suit and bloodied. Arthur cannot stop himself from getting up to assist him. We soon discover that Takumi (Ken Watanabe) has been lost in the forest for two days, unable to find his way back to the main path. Strangely, while Takumi was seemingly only 100 yards or so away from Arthur”s rock after deciding to help get his new friend to safety, he can no longer find it. Both men are lost – in more ways than one – and then the flashbacks begin.
We learn that before his descent into despair, Arthur was an adjunct college professor married to Joan (Naomi Watts), a real estate agent and the couple”s increasingly bitter breadwinner. While Watts does everything in her power to make Joan more interesting than the obvious alcoholic she's presented as, the bickering couple is not as interesting as Van Sant or screenwriter Chris Sparling (“Buried”) want them to be. Clearly, something bad is going to happen to spark Arthur”s voyage, but the familiar conflict Sparling puts forth doesn't generate much sympathy.
When the story jumps back to the present the tone really starts to get funky. Van Sant has artfully presented Arthur's journey to Aokigahara thanks to sparse use of dialogue and some lyrically composed imagery. Arthur and Takumi's ordeal, however, turns into a completely different movie. At one point, the pair takes shelter from a heavy rainstorm in a cave that inexplicably becomes flooded with water. All of a sudden “Sea” feels like it”s a turn-of-the-millennium Tom Hanks movie directed by Robert Zemeckis. Don't worry, though, the bumpiness returns as we quickly endure yet another flashback to the less compelling storyline back in the States.
It may be hard to believe, but Van Sant hasn't completely lost us yet. That happens toward the climax of the film when Arthur and Takumi bond over a campfire and it simply all goes wrong. The scene is meant to be a cathartic moment for Arthur to reflect on his life and decide whether he truly wants to live or not. It's also one of those “actor's moments” you see coming a mile away and McConaughey is ready for it. He's pulling out all the stops as he digs deep down to do everything he can to convey his character's pain. His recent work has demonstrated that he's a man of many talents but even he can't transform a beat that feels so tedious, unnecessary and, sadly, clichéd into a moment that should be powerful and heartbreaking.
Some of Van Sant's choices only make things worse. A strangely misplaced score by acclaimed composer Mason Bates exacerbates the movie's awkwardness. This is Bates' first cinematic work, but he unexpectedly ventures into a stereotypical movie studio style that is shocking once you discover who wrote it. The film would have benefited from a much less traditional score that is no doubt what Van Sant and the film's producers believed they were getting with Bates. Director of photography Kasper Tuxen, however, does an admirable job selling the wilds of Massachusetts as Japan and making the proceedings aesthetically pleasing.
“The Sea of Trees” first gained fame after it was selected to the Black List in 2013. That annual industry spotlight has opened many doors for unheralded screenwriters, but the resulting film is yet another example of a Black List script that does not work on the screen. And, frankly, we're not sure an auteur other than Van Sant would have fared any better.
“The Sea of Trees” was recently acquired by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions and is expected to be released sometime later this year.