It’s not been a good year on the big screen for Aokigahara, the Japanese forest in the foothills of Mount Fuji that is best known for its rumored hauntings and its high rate of suicides.
Between the supernatural thriller The Forest and the misguided redemption drama The Sea of Trees, moviegoers might rationally conclude that most visitors instead die from boredom.
Sea of Trees, the latest effort from director Gus Van Sant (Milk) is a muddled and relentlessly downbeat examination of marriage and mortality that’s more pretentious than profound.
The shallow journey of self-discovery stars Matthew McConaughey as Arthur, a college professor dealing with plenty of personal demons as he buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo and the nearby aforementioned woods.
Before he finishes his mission, he encounters Takumi (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese businessman on the brink of death. Arthur decides to postpone his own demise to aid the stranger, allowing both men to reconsider their plans.
Details are gradually revealed about the suicidal tendencies that brought them together — in Arthur’s case, that includes abundant flashbacks chronicling the marital volatility involving his alcoholic wife (Naomi Watts) that’s left him depressed and withdrawn.
At any rate, both men are overcome with despair and agony, and viewers might share their sentiment after hearing the overbearing music score combined with the stilted dialogue in the deliberately paced screenplay by Chris Sparling (Buried). “I don’t want to die. I just didn’t want to live,” Takumi shares cryptically before launching into a story about how his employment struggles have affected his family.
Van Sant crafts some evocative visuals from the lush landscapes (apparently filmed in New England), but the two characters who dominate the screen time aren’t compelling enough to warrant viewer sympathy, despite the script’s clumsy attempts to manipulate emotions. The final act is especially contrived and far-fetched.
Along the way, there are some trumped-up wilderness survival scenarios, such as a tumble off a cliff and a flooded cave. At least the film accurately captures the notion of aimless wandering, whether that’s good or bad.
Everyone involved on both sides of the camera has done much better work elsewhere. Yet even if the earnest intentions are sincere and admirable, The Sea of Trees is hardly life-affirming.