When Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) is introduced arriving in Japan with a one-way ticket, expressionless eyes and no luggage, anything seems possible for Gus Van Sant’s mawkish The Sea of Trees, the director’s return after a three-year gap. Those who read a review before going to the cinema will be informed that it is in fact a suicide journey into a Japanese forest. Aokigahara, an age-old wilderness under the Fuji Mountain, greets its travellers on signs with reassuring messages, directed at the alarmingly high number of visitors who didn’t come just for a picnic. The area is in fact what Google recommends when “the perfect place to die” is searched.
Arthur steps into the dark and cold woods, carefully advancing on rocky grounds without a trail. Soon, the renants of people who had the same idea are encountered. Skeletons prove there were those who took their suicide seriously, and retraceable tightened strings speak of possible second thoughts. As Takumi (Ken Watanabe) informs Arthur, there are those who are sure and others who are not. Takumi is a Japanese businessman with cut wrists, stumbling about in the woods, desperate to find a way out. He has left a small family behind and – temporarily – lost the will to live. In what follows, Arthur and Takumi endure great hardships, fading strength, discouraging weather and terrain, wounds and a number of unrealistic conversations in order to basically find a trail that leads them out of the deep green maze.
Of course, Aokigahara is not merely a forest, but a metaphysical place of undefined greatness, a realm to “either kill or heal”, according to Naomi Watts. Her character, Arthur’s wife Joan, is outlined in flashbacks that attempt to shed light on Arthur’s decision. Their scenes from a marriage are of choleric nature, charged up by her alcohol-infused petulance and his professional frustration and fussiness. When she receives a terrible diagnosis, they are reminded about what brought them together in the first place and their love is allowed once again to bloom. Van Sant cannot present this twist of fate in a believable way, and the same applies for Arthur’s quick change of heart concerning his suicide. It appears as if the director tried to pave over these bumpy moments with sentimental goo, a moving soundtrack and too much emotion, when more character development was needed.
The Sea of Trees does not yet have a UK release date.
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Watch an excerpt of The Sea of Trees here: