Cannes Review: Van Sant's 'Sea of Trees' is a Very Interesting Mess
by Marco Cerritos
May 24, 2015
Reporting from the Cannes Film Festival. The Sea of Trees is the latest from Gus Van Sant, a filmmaker with a very eclectic track record that proves he's not afraid to put himself out there and experiment. His movies may not always hit their mark but the passion and unique creative voice is always there. Despite early negative buzz at the festival, The Sea of Trees is far from the disaster Cannes audiences have made it out to be. The film is a bit long and flawed in some areas but extremely watchable. Cannes always needs a high-profile whipping boy and with its lush pedigree, this year Van Sant's The Sea of Trees fits the bill but in reality the opposite is true. This film is Gus Van Sant's best since Milk.
Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey is front-and-center in The Sea of Trees as Arthur Brennan, a washed-up science teacher who has traveled to Japan with no luggage and a one-track mind. All he wants is to leave the airport and go straight to the Aokigahara forest, also known as the sea of trees. This isn't any ordinary forest and is actually called "the suicide forest" by the locals. It's a popular place to enter and end it all on your own terms and the allure of this place is written all over Arthur's face in the first act of the film.
Upon entering the titular woodland, we see more of Arthur's motivation behind his fateful decision and are introduced to fellow traveler Takumi (played by Ken Watanabe) who is also ready for the graveyard. The two men bond and get to know each other in the way that might make a few eyes roll. It turns out Arthur was far from happy back home, caring for a dying wife (Naomi Watts) and dealing with more stress by the day. In his eyes the only way out was the easy way out. Arthur's backstory with his wife Joan is shown in flashback and helps to fill in the gaps of why suicide is the only answer for our solemn protagonist.
Obviously Arthur and Takumi can't immediately meet and commit suicide otherwise we'd have a very short movie so instead we're shown many scenes of the duo walking and talking in the forest and even getting caught in a flash flood that nearly does the dirty work for them. This is where Sea of Trees begins to spin its wheels, not only by repeating the same formula it already applied in the first act but by doing something to our main characters that seems so obvious from the moment they meet. It's a twist that screenwriter Chris Sparling telegraphs a mile away and will work depending on how forgiving of a moviegoer you are.
Despite some missteps in the last third of the film, The Sea of Trees is a very interesting mess. The pieces that work are assembled very well and the ones that don't are still alluring on their own. Kasper Tuxen's cinematography captures the look of the forest with a very deliberate palate. Colors are enhanced and isolated in different scenes giving the film a texture that matches the main character's emotional state. Once the lights have dimmed in Cannes and the festival fog has died down, Sea of Trees will be exposed to a wider audience. While not a perfect film, this is where I suspect most people will see this with a clean slate and make up their own mind. I applaud Van Sant for continuing to push the envelope in cinema, something that artists need to do more often. As for the film's performances, this is Matthew McConaughey's movie from start to finish and he continues to impress with this unique second act to his career.
Marco's Cannes 2015 Rating: C+
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