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.
The elemental set-up—two actors lost in a natural landscape—superficially recalls Van Sant’s earlier film Gerry. But the swelling music and relentless close-ups on our heroes’ leaky waterworks push the film into the generically rougher terrain of melodrama, which, although beautiful, must be navigated carefully. And here, it’s Van Sant who lacks a map.
Within a few scenes, he’s already cutting away from the present to flashback to Arthur’s troubled relationship with his wife, played with wine-soaked gloom by Naomi Watts. A brief sample of the film’s dramaturgy: our introduction to the couple’s matrimonial struggles comes when Arthur fails to find his wife’s lipstick in the glove box. Immediately, accusations and petty barbs fly and repressed tensions get dredged up to the surface. The film’s emotional core lives in these exchanges, which repeatedly break up the woodland wanderings. Such moments are meant to sing with the profound ordinariness of their lives. Instead, every line lands like the laboriously over-worked, and occasionally bizarre, banality that it is (“remember the baking soda!?” is just one of many pleas for emotional connection) and McConaughey and Watt’s realist pas de deux dances unknowingly on the edge of parody.
The affected realism extends into the style, too: the stygian color palette and muddy pools of grain offer up the textural pleasures of a damp sweater. Van Sant seems at a total loss with this material, particularly as the middle-brow realism shifts towards dubious metaphysical whisperings in the film’s back half. Watanabe gets the unfortunate task of dolling out these truisms, which are at best faintly ridiculous and at worst an Orientalist gloss on standard self-help slogans. And like everything else in this determinist morality play, Watanabe’s oft-repeated kōans give the game away well before it’s time to reveal the true nature of his character.
McConaughey fares no better. Van Sant employs none of the actor’s strengths, which are considerable if not legion. McConaughey slips most comfortably into roles with obvious tics, where his suavity or wounded masculinity manifests physically, providing him sufficient business to keep himself and his audience occupied. Van Sant purposefully constrains this natural restlessness in an attempt to suggest depth and draw us into Arthur’s recesses. But McConaughey appears merely vacant, his spark deadened and his characteristic drawl entombed in quiet.
It’s tempting, for this viewer anyways, to imagine what a more stylistically intractable filmmaker might bring to this material, what a perpendicular approach to the grim earnestness might produce. And really, you don’t have to look far afield. Just down the promenade from the premiere of The Sea of Trees, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s sublime melodrama Journey to the Shore opened quietly in Cannes’s Un Certain Regard sidebar. A ghost story of loss and reconciliations with the dead, it traverses some similar ground. But Kurosawa’s stark mise-en-scène, pocked by negative space and slyly distant, imbues the otherwise generic proceedings with mystery and dread, and the film’s life-affirming metaphysics blossom amidst this sense of danger. The Sea of Trees conjures up no real threat to impede the path to safety and the inevitable, pacifying message: no matter the hardships, life—and Thierry Frémaux’s Cannes—will go on.