Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts
Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Material, Some Disturbing Images and Brief Strong Language
Judging by the critical reception (it has a measly score of 23 on Metacritic) and the fact that even with a trio of big names and a independent film maverick at the helm, it was barely visible upon release, I was expecting a train wreck. One on par with "Paranoid Park." Fortunately, this was not the case. It has its problems, but on the whole, I liked it. In fact, I might argue that I will probably like it more when I see it again.
Arthur Brennan (McConaughey) has bought a one-way ticket to Japan. His intention is to go to Aokigahara Forest (aka "Suicide Forest"), down a bottle of pills and leave this earthly realm. But just as he's about to do the deed, he spies a desperate man walking through the forest. Taking pity on him, Arthur resolves to help this man named Takumi Nakamura (Watanabe) find his way out so he doesn't end up like Arthur intends to. However, the more he talks with Takumi, the more he reveals himself. Now, he realizes the mistake that he almost made, and the two of them must find a way out.
Although the set-up and setting signal something depressing, "The Sea of Trees" is actually a love story. Central to Arthur's decision to commit suicide is his wife, Joan (Watts). How she fits into his life-ending decision is something that you will have to discover for yourself. It's not earth-shattering, but then again, should it be?
Matthew McConaughey used to be just a hunky leading man, playing the heartthrob or the goofy stoner type. Although he did occasionally foray into indie territory ("Frailty" comes to mind), he wasn't thought of as a classic thespian. That all changed in 2013, when he stunned the world with his dramatic portrayal of homophobe-turned-gay-savior Ron Woodruff in "Dallas Buyers Club," even winning an Oscar for his efforts. Personally, I didn't think that either he or the film was all that special, but if it got him roles in movies like "Interstellar" and this, well, far be it for me to complain. However, it happened, McConaughey is able to get in touch with his deepest emotions and bring them to the forefront. The pivotal scene is when he describes his love for Joan to Takumi. It's heart-wrenching stuff.
McConaughey is able to play off two of the most reliable names in the business: Naomi Watts and Ken Watanabe. Watts is magnificent. Never one to back down from a challenge or risk her vanity or salary when choosing her roles, she gives one of her best performances as Joan. A "functioning alcoholic," Joan is both volatile and effervescent. Watts is able to show how special Joan is and why Arthur would take so much pain (and deal it out in equal measure) to be with her. It's an underwritten role, but Watts is good enough to overcome this obstacle to the point where it's hardly noticeable. Ken Watanabe is less impressive. The Japanese leading man is uneven; usually he's good, but he has his stiff moments. Still, he adds a lot of heart to this movie.
Gus Van Sant chooses his projects carefully, only making films that he cares about or believes will challenge him. They don't always work and he is occasionally guilty of self-indulgence (the aforementioned "Paranoid Park" is an example), but he's made some great movies like "Good Will Hunting" (which brought him, however briefly, to the mainstream, and enough clout to get risky projects off the ground) and "Milk" (ditto). Here, he's less about being artsy than some other "look what I can do!" indie pics. There are some truly gorgeous shots of the forest and some haunting images of the devastation as well.
While I have few complaints about the second half, the first is rough going. I admit to getting restless during the first hour. Too much time is spent with Arthur and Takumi wandering through the forest. It becomes a little redundant, and in retrospect more time should have been spent with Arthur and Joan instead. It would have camouflaged the seams in the story and lent the resolution more power.
"The Sea of Trees" sounds a lot more depressing than it actually is. In fact, it makes you appreciate life. Not many movies that start off being about suicide can make that claim.