Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) travels to Aokigahara Forest at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji, with the notion of killing himself. The forest is famous for being one of the most beautiful places in the world to kill oneself, and as Arthur settles on his decision to end it all, he encounters Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), a man who seemingly had the same idea as Brennan but, gravely injured and with a change of heart, is trying to find his way out of the forest.
If you have heard anything by now, it is that The Sea of Trees was enthusiastically boo-ed at the press screening in Cannes, and almost universally panned by those who saw it. The good news, however – if you’re a good news kind of person – is that the film, while trite and clichéd, is not quite as bad as you have heard.
The film is essentially a two hander between McConaughey and Watanabe, with some flashbacks to Naomi Watts as Brennan’s wife Joan thrown in for good measure. The two men befriend one another, and it seems that the chemistry between the two lead actors is genuine. Watts does a great job of playing the passive aggressive (or sometimes downright aggressive) Joan, but her change of personality comes about too quickly for it to be believable in the scope of the film.
Chris Sparling’s screenplay seems to have borrowed every romantic comedy cliché in the book and thrown them into the film, making the entire affair feel saccharine sweet, mushy and totally over sentimentalised. As well as this, plot holes and conveniences abound, making the audience assembled at the repeat screening in Cannes often laugh at the absurdity of the plot.
Director Gus Van Sant revels in the beauty of the film’s setting, as well he should, but makes the whole thing feel like a fairytale, rather than a survival story, which is what it should be. The film is well shot, but McConaughey and Watanabe are never given a chance to be anything other than superficial, never really giving their characters depth. As well as this, there are so many decisions made throughout the film that feel contrived, convenient and clichéd that any strong story is lost in a sea of schmaltz and silly twists.
In all, The Sea of Trees could have been a great romantic drama about love and life, but disappears into a sea of contrivances and over sentimentalised clap trap. McConaughey, Watanabe and Watts try their best, but how The Sea of Trees ended up In Competition at Cannes is anyone’s guess; it is not a competition film…