Cannes: The Sea of Trees review

Matthew McConaughey has been doing better than ever of late, with films such as Killer Joe, Dallas Buyers Club and television’s True Detective rightly winning him praise from critics and audiences alike. While this trend is bound to continue with Gus Van Sant’s latest, The Sea of Trees, McConaughey’s performance is the only thing in this patronising catastrophe that’s worthy of applause.

The Sea of Trees begins with a near catatonic Arthur (McConaughey) deciding to end his life in the famed ‘suicide forest’ of Aokigahara, a real place in Japan where suicides will sometimes number more than a hundred a year. There he finds another man, Takumi (Ken Watanabe), who has had second thoughts, abandoned his plans for suicide and now can’t find his way out.

Arthur goes on to help Takumi, who is weak from roaming the woods for two days with slashed wrists, and the pair begin to bond in the wilderness. That this experience will change Arthur’s resolve is never in any doubt, and the trite, formulaic course of events that ensue feels extraordinarily misjudged.

Time and again, Takumi offers vague words of wisdom and guidance at just the right moment to help bring Arthur back from the brink, and every scene offers oversimplifications of grief, depression, suicide and even Japanese culture. Chris Sparling’s tone deaf and ludicrously contrived script constantly pushes the melodrama beyond the point of absurdity.

In effect, this is a film in which a suicidal man wanders around a forest in pain and yet members of the audience will howl with laughter at the sight of him falling over. Everything about The Sea of Trees is so artificial that it has no emotional truth or depth at all.

While the script, which is a bland slop that mostly comes across like it was written by Nicholas Sparks on an off day, is the root cause of the picture’s problems, Van Sant has gone on to ladle more tasteless gruel on top. Cinematographer Kasper Tuxen has created some frankly strange and ugly ‘night’ lighting, and attempts to make the dialogue scenes ‘tense’ and ‘edgy’ by shaking the camera and, seemingly, shifting the framing on the fly.

Poured over all of this is Mason Bates’ constantly reaching score that hammers at the audience’s eardrums with the unmistakable message that they should be moved; and presumably to tears, not the inevitable laughter.

By the time The Sea of Trees reached its climax, I had long since figured out its ‘twist’ – indeed, it’s so obvious a pay-off that a colleague managed to predict it without having even seen the film – but nothing could have prepared me for how far Sparling and Van Sant would push this big ‘reveal.’ Whole plot threads are introduced just moments before they are melodramatically tied up, and asinine scenes are stacked rapidly on one another.

See of Trees left its premiere audience picking up their jaws from the floor. Thankfully, Matthew McConaughey has more than enough momentum to move on with barely a scratch on his reputation.