Friday, August 26, 2016

The Sea of Trees: Gus Van Sant Stumbles Around Aokigahara

Yet again, another film dramatizes the dangers posed to humanity by forests, yet refuses to take up the cause of deforestation. In this case, those woods are truly lethal. We are talking about the Aokigahara forest below Mount Fuji, considered the world’s top suicide destination site (previously seen in the horror movie, The Forest). An American has come to do what depressed people do here, but a New Agey woo-woo encounter might change his mind in Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

If you are in this movie, you probably don’t have much to live for. Arthur Brennan certainly feels that way, at least initially. As we learn during an interminable series of flashbacks, Brennan is wracked with guilt over the death of his wife Joan, even though she was a real pill up until she was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. Frankly, his suicidal despair just doesn’t follow from the long agonizing scenes of marital discord Van Sant mercilessly inflicts on his viewers.

However, just as Brennan is about to put the audience out of its misery, he stumbles across the badly wounded Takumi Nakamura, a laid-off salaryman, who entered the forest with similar intentions. With their survival instincts kicking in, Brennan and Nakamura will work together to weather the harsh elements and hopefully find their way out of the supernaturally dense woods.

Actually, the film sort of perks up during the survivalist second act, but it eventually descends into a maudlin orgy of on-the-nose symbolism and eye-rolling sentimentality. Is there really a Nakamura with Brennan or is he a psychological projection or maybe even a helpful spirit? Oh, but it is so ambiguous.

So basically, Sea of Trees is Swiss Army Man without the fart jokes. No question about it, the best thing about the film are the trees, which cinematographer Kasper Tuxen’s wide angles manage to make look both serene and sinister. Matthew McConaughey struggles valiantly, wisely taking an understated approach to the overwrought material on his plate, but it is a losing effort. As Nakamura, Ken Watanabe looks like he is counting the seconds until he can leave the dank, muddy forest. In her not so brief scenes as Joan Brennan, Naomi Watts seems to be auditioning for a revival August: Osage County, but she is still a thousand times more subtle and reserved than Meryl Streep. Yet perhaps most baffling, emerging Japanese star Hyunri (who was absolutely revelatory in The Voice of Water) has a throwaway walk-on-cameo as a flight attendant.

Sea is one of those films whose unforgiving reception at Cannes has given it a notorious vibe. All the ruckus tomato-throwing often creates a perversely sympathetic climate among domestic critics for such films (like Only God Forgives), until we get a chance to see them. Granted, Sea is not wildly offensive, but the Cannes press corps still wasn’t far wrong. Not recommended, The Sea of Trees opens today (8/26) in New York, at the Village East.