“The Sea of Trees”

When Gus Van Sant’s (“Good Will Hunting,” “Milk”) “The Sea of Trees” was booed at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, I was curious why. Answer – it’s a Lifetime movie.

Matthew McConaughey plays a suicidal teacher named Arthur. He travels to the “Suicide Forest” in Japan since it’s the “perfect place to commit suicide.” It’s here he meets another suicidal man named Takumi (a typecast Ken Watanabe). Together, they look for a way out of the forest after a change of heart.

I don’t mind an emotionally heavy movie that questions life and death (“The Fountain” is one of my favorite movies, after all), but “The Sea of Trees” has an annoying fetish for misery and a lack of vision. There are a few mildly haunting moments, but it’s mostly a film that tries too hard.


Arthur is in a failing marriage with Joan (Naomi Watts), and in several vague arguments, a thousand flashbacks, and one exposition-heavy monologue we learn the following:

  • Arthur was miserable at an esteemed company.
  • Joan was a functioning alcoholic
  • Arthur had an affair with a colleague that further strained his marriage with Joan.
  • She began drinking more.
  • Arthur took a job as a professor, which Joan judged as laziness.
  • Joan was then diagnosed with cancer, which brought them closer together.
  • They reconciled after her recovery surgery.
  • Joan died in a car accident after her recovery surgery.

The biggest problem with its content besides its lackluster execution is the lack of emotion. We know Arthur didn’t know Joan well, but we don’t know if he ever loved her. Therefore, his suicide attempt isn’t powerful, but melodramatic.

Watanabe once again finds himself as a character who only speaks the screenwriters’ philosophical thoughts, much like in “Godzilla” and “Inception.” He’s a great actor, but can we give the man a meatier role? It doesn’t help that his character is just a painfully obvious symbol of Joan.

There are a couple of eerie moments in which both men need to survive using corpses’ clothes and tools that work, but these moments are scattered too far apart. I can see the movie working better if it focused on the survival elements rather than Arthur’s marriage, but that’s not the writers’ main fetish, isn’t it?

Grade: D-