Gus Van Sant’s The Sea Of Trees is an empty, meandering film masquerading as a thought-provoking thriller on the cost of things left unsaid and the weight of regret. Without three strong performances from its leads there would be nothing at all to praise about this film, and even with their inclusion there is little worthy of note.
Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) is at the end of his rope. After losing his wife (Naomi Watts) in a horrible accident, Arthur loses himself in a bout of depression so consuming that he eventually uses Google to find the best places to die. His search leads him to Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, which has also been called the ‘suicide forest’ and/or ‘the sea of trees,’ an infamous stretch of densely wooded land where numerous people journey every year for the purpose of taking their own life. Arthur books a ticket and makes the trek, but before he can end his life he encounters another man, Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), and soon the two lost souls form a bond that is intended to lead to some kind of spiritual awakening. The film never gets there, however, due to a preposterous third act twist that ranks among the worst endings of all time.
I’m not going to spoil the end of The Sea of Trees, but veteran moviegoers can more than likely piece together the twist—or the majority of it—from the trailer alone. It’s existence is clearly meant to illicit tears, but instead it causes laughter, in part because it comes from so far out of left field that one has to wonder how Van Sant ever settled on it in the first place. Furthermore, I have to wonder if anyone in the cast knew of its existence prior to the start of production because it is far harder to reason and justify than anything any of them have been in before (and one of the stars once slipped through a black hole).
There is not a single character outside the principal three in The Sea of Trees that exists for any reason other than to push the plot forward with useful and convenient bits of information. This is a movie where it feels like there are only three people in the entire world who have real lives, and even their existence is expressed through surface-level sentimentality that is made exceptionally nauseating thanks to an over-dramatic score that fills the ample space between scenes of meaningful dialogue. Everyone and everything is wasted in the name of faux poetic filmmaking, and while some individual scenes may be moving they are surrounded by mundane sequences that feel endless.
All this said, there is something impressive about how Van Sant manages to transition from a tale of suicide, to a story of a broken marriage, a meeting between two unlikely friends, a meditation on the finality of death, and then into a sort of low budget, M. Night Shyamalan fare that even he probably would have left in his writing room trash bin. For a filmmaker who has built a career on emotionally-driven films that find a way to move the masses, The Sea of Trees is a complete misfire for Van Sant that also sullies the filmographies of everyone else involved. I might be more inclined to go easy on material like this if it came from a Lifetime original movie, but this is a modestly budgeted film with numerous A-list players, and as such it falls far short of expectations.