In our era of endless Letterboxd discoveries and Twitter reclamation projects (full disclosure: I am part of the problem), the whiplash responses that await troubled films often operate according to a kind of critical Newtonian physics: each dismissal creates an equal and opposite reappraisal. So it’s something of a surprise that The Sea of Trees met such a vicious critical drubbing when it premiered at Cannes last year with nary a supporter in sight of the Croisette willing to take up its defense…except, it must be assumed, Thierry Frémaux. The Cannes director likes to lob a bomb or two into the competition, but, even by those standards, Gus Van Sant’s latest film appeared a baffling inclusion, and critics responded accordingly. The intervening year has brought the film at least a modicum of relief: it’s finally getting a release, sneaking into theaters thanks to distributor A24. And yet, Monsieur Fremaux’s choice to include it in the competition still seems the prerogative of a man adrift in a thicket of red carpet photo ops and star junkets, desperate to find a Hollywood production worthy of inclusion in the world cinema festival par excellence, but lacking any fellow travelers able to guide him to critical safety.
It’s rather appropriate, then, that The Sea of Trees zeroes in on the life of middling adjunct professor Arthur, recently bereft of his wife, as he heads to Japan and loses himself in the notorious and densely wooded Aokigahara forest. Notorious, the film reminds us with a bit on-screen Googling, as a favored location for suicides. Of course that’s what Matthew McConaughey’s depressed academic is there to accomplish, until a raving Ken Watanabe crosses his path and provides him a traveling companion, a mission to escape the maze-like forest, and a reason for living.