After watching Gus Van Sant’s The Sea Of Trees, I’m convinced that composer Mason Bates was shown a completely different movie to score. How else can you explain the gentle woodland nymph-y aesthetic that Bates favors as Matthew McConaughey stumbles frantically around Aokigahara, otherwise known as THE SUICIDE FOREST?!
Last time I checked, suicide forests weren’t happy-go-lucky camping sites, and actor Ken Watanabe wasn’t a magical forest creature. The Sea Of Trees is such a strange, bi-polar fever-dream, far beyond Bates’ ill-fitting – and never ceasing – musical accompaniment, but it’s a damn good place to start. Then we can get to how a famed location known for unspeakable sorrow is barely characterized and defined, as yet another movie wastes Japan’s deadliest landmark.
McConaughey plays Arthur Brennan, an adjunct college professor who buys a one-way ticket to the Aokigahara forest. Arthur can’t bear to live another day alone, stricken with grief by an unexpected death of his wife (Joan, played by Naomi Watts). Death is the only relief Arthur feels upon entering Aokigahara, but that changes when he meets a once-suicidal traveler now searching for a pathway home (played by Watanabe). Giving up on his own mission of self-harm, Arthur attempts to save his new companion before it’s too late, but Aokigahara’s mystical grasp may have other plans for the two weary souls…
If Aokigahara sounds familiar, that’s because Natalie Dormer already faced its supernatural horrors in January’s The Forest – a more straight-forward horror excursion plagued by demons and murders. Or, if you’re as crazy as I am, then you saw 2014’s Grave Halloween, a direct-to-Syfy chiller staged in Aokigahara (even worse than The Forest).
By association, The Sea Of Trees could have easily set itself apart from Aokigahara’s more forgettable US appearances, yet Van Sant and writer Chris Sparling manifest absolutely zero personality for their iconic backdrop. We’re simply led along McConaughey’s journey without any guidance or stressed importance, in a way that would make casual viewers question why Arther Brennan is flying around the world just to kill himself. Aokigahara is depicted as a mere garden-variety forest, with no haunting past or dooming future.
That’s not to say McConaughey turns in a poor performance, but dramatics between Arthur and wife Joan become preachy “Live A Passionate Life!” propaganda minus said passion. Cheating, selfishness and alcoholism tear their relationship apart (through flashbacks galore), until sickness redefines everything Arthur knows – hence the whole Aokigahara trip.
Yet there’s a missing spark between both performers, as Arthur lives through his most dire period without much added compassion to the viewer. It’s a strange message, one that oddly emphasizes how absolutely f&$ked life is and there’s nothing we can do about it – but don’t give up! I mean, that’s why there’s cheery orchestral music lifting our spirits in each dimly-coated scene of physical pain and psychological torment, right?
Seriously, what the hell is with that music.
Van Sant injects some twisted whimsy into Sparling’s torturous story, but The Sea Of Trees suffers dearly from a lack of narration, or, at the least, a more linear plot. Van Sant opens on Arthur purchasing a plane ticket, we’re clued into his death wish, and he lands in Tokyo before you can say “Ohayou gozaimasu!” (Good Morning!). Arthur’s inner-struggle flows with a spiritually connected assessment of self-worth – coupled with Van Sant’s cinematic emphasis on lush nature backdrops – but the juxtaposition of flashbacks and Watanabe interactions fit like a metallic joint without any lubrication. It works, but it’s creaky and a bit jagged. We know there’s something fishy going on, yet Van Sant’s coyness suggests a big of ego that’s not quite justified. It’s typical arthouse ambition lacking enough depth to warrant minimal dialogue and fractured storytelling, only worsened by an absolute mishandling of Aokigahara’s damning essence.
Alas, Aokigahara worshipers still don’t have a memorable cinematic creation worth championing, despite The Sea Of Trees arguably being the best Aokigahara-based movie yet. That’s not saying much, and it’s only by a slim margin (don’t get cocky, Van Sant), but there’s just too much tonal ambiguity here worth an otherwise dark and dreary ride. I get it – we’re supposed to embrace Arthur’s revelations and look towards the future, but that’s not the story being told. This is a story of Arthur Brennan being beaten to absolute shit by a forest with a mind of its own, and the confusing musical atmosphere yanked from a wholly separate genre. The pieces are there, but they fit together like some woodshop project I half-assed high school.
Maybe next time, Aokigahara…
Sea Of Trees is the best movie about Aokigahara yet, but considering the competition, that's still not saying much.