- Actors: Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, Ken Watanabe, Katie Aselton
- Director: Gus Van Sant
- Format: NTSC, Widescreen
- Language: English
- Region: Region A/1
- Number of discs: 1
- Rated: PG-13
- Studio: Lionsgate
- Release Date: November 1, 2016
- Run Time: 110 minutes
There wasn’t a single twist in the narrative of The Sea of Trees that I didn’t see coming long before they arrived, but I still would have allowed myself to be swept up by the clichés in the grief-filled story. The intermixing of supernatural with emotion-filled melodrama did not even bother me, at least not until it became forcefully manipulative. It is one thing to use sadness to evoke emotions from the audience, but the way it is done in The Sea of Trees often feels sadistically manipulative, regardless of how authentic the performances may be. The emotions are not earned so much as thrust upon the audience, which is unfortunate considering the dedication and skill of the cast involved.
The film begins with visual storytelling that tells us everything we need to know. We follow a somber man, who we later discover to be an adjunct professor named Arthur (Matthew McConaughey), as he travels from the United States to Japan in search of a forest where many go to commit suicide. No sooner than he has arrived and found a peaceful spot amongst the trees, Arthur is interrupted by a Japanese man (Ken Watanabe) lost in the woods. Delaying his own decision to end things, Arthur tries fruitlessly to help the man find his way out of the forest. It is quickly made clear that they are both lost in the woods with nobody but each other to rely on for survival once night falls.
Rather predictably, the narrative fills in the reasons for Arthur’s despair with flashbacks. The focus remains on Arthur’s troublesome relationship with his wife (Naomi Watts), which could have added nuance to the narrative but instead ends up feeling like the first in a series of manipulative red herrings meant to squeeze emotion from the audience. Far more effective are the poetic conversations about life and death had between the two men in the wilderness, whereas these flashbacks merely beat the audience over the head with obvious contrivances.
As much as I appreciated the acting done by the trio of leads and was willing to allow myself to be swept up in the melodrama, there are one too many twists within the flashbacks to be forgivable. It isn’t any single poor decision which destroyed this film, but a series of them which eventually collapse the entire film from the weight of the ridiculous. This is unfortunate, because the cast was dedicated enough for me to excuse nearly every contrivance until the last.
Director Gus Van Sant has made a habit out of switching between mainstream films and more adventurous independent films, but The Sea of Trees almost belongs in a completely separate category. While the setting makes for lush photography and the acting is all handled with a level of grace, nothing can save the film from its screenplay. Adequate as the direction may be, this film will likely be a stain on Van Sant’s career.
The Blu-ray release includes a Digital HD copy of the film, as well as a single featurette in the disc extras. It isn’t much, but something is better than nothing considering how much critics bashed this film upon release.
Entertainment Value: 5.5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 5/10
Historical Significance: 3/10
Special Features: 3/10