Cannes Film Festival: The Sea of Trees

Directed by Gus Van Sant
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe and Naomi Watts

by Joanna Orland

The McConaissance Era has come to an abrupt halt with the latest dramatic Matthew McConaughey vehicle The Sea of Trees. Directed by former Palme d’Or winner Gus Van Sant, The Sea of Trees is a melodramatically dull piece of cinema, neither acting as the character study or spiritual piece it so desires to be. With a duration of nearly two hours, never does this film entice interest, but rather it strays into self indulgent territory, spoon-feeding the audience the emotions of its characters leaving nothing up to the imagination.

Matthew McConaughey plays Arthur, a man who has traveled to Japan to The Sea of Trees, a forest where people go to commit suicide. While in the forest, he encounters Takumi Nakamura, a man who is lost and needs help. Arthur takes a break from taking his own life to aid Takumi, and in the process realizes he desperately wants to escape the forest – a mystical place haunted by spirits, according to Takumi.

Intercut with the male adventure of surviving in the rough is the backstory of Arthur and his wife Joan, played by Naomi Watts. The two actors have zero chemistry, and their bickering scenes are mundane and irritating as Van Sant attempts to demonstrate their rocky marriage. Their tender scenes are also lacking in chemistry, making these flashback scenes feel gratuitous and redundant as the story could have been told merely in the forest.

While Watts and McConaughey are lacking chemistry, McConaughey and Watanabe have slightly more and at one point I was convinced they were going to kiss. Their scenes together were slightly more watchable than the rest of the movie, but overall, with very little invested in this story and its characters, I spent more time trying to catch up on sleep than paying attention to whether any of them live or die.

It’s not the story at fault – in the right hands, this could have been quite a fantastic film. The idea of a forest where people go to commit suicide has much potential, especially when including a spiritual element to it. It could have been treated abstractedly rather than completely literal and melodramatic. The visuals could have been more montage and the score could have been…. well…. just better on so many levels. Especially with such acting talent as McConaughey and Watanabe on board, the unfulfilled potential becomes even more blatant and the film all the more disappointing.

Matthew McConaughey had a good run. It’s just a shame that the end of an era is so anti-climactic.

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