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USA 2015
Directed by
Gus Van Sant
110 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars

The Sea Of Trees

Over his diverse career Gus Van Sant has become well known for jumping back and forth from mainstream crowd-pleasers like Good Will Hunting  (1997) to “personal”, even frustratingly opaque, but aesthetically rigorous, films such as 2005’s Last Days. The Sea of Trees ,which belongs to neither group, comes across as New-Age-style mysticism and is more disappointing in its woolly-headed realization than frustrating.

Matthew McConaughey plays Arthur Brennan, a distraught adjunct professor who travels to Japan after the death of his wife, Joan (Naomi Watts), with whom he has become out-of-favour. His destination is the Aokigahara forest near Mt Fuji, known by would-be suicides from around the world for its reputation as “the perfect place to die”. There he meets the lost and injured Takumi (Ken Watanabe), who apparently has come there for the same reason.  In trying to help him Arthur forgets about his grief.

With its moody visuals of the moist, encompassing forest underscored by Mason Bates low key music, the film  unfolds reasonably enough, as its two protagonists, somewhat as with Van Sant's 2002 film Gerry, deal with their plight and Arthur reflects on his marriage, scenes from which we see in periodic flashbacks. Niggling questions like: how did Arthur survive a serious fall?, what was that flash flood all about? and why is Takumi so debilitated? really start to compound once Arthur is rescued and we next see him in a hospital bed with a new pair of spectacles and then heading back to the forest to find Takumi equipped with nothing more than a ball of string and lo-and-behold does so (or something like him) within few minutes.

It is however when it is discovered that the film’s structuring idea is based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, "Hansel and Gretel", and not some antique edition but an simplified Golden Book version of it, that the film really nose-dives in our regard.  I have no idea if this was a feature of the bestselling novel by Wataru Tsurumui on which the film is based but it is a WTF! revelation that trivializes the ideas which have emerged through the story.

Darren Aronosky explored similar territory in The Fountain (2006) but he situated his main story within a spectacular setting of Mayan myth and European historical romance to create an imaginary whole of unseen possibilities.  Its speculations may not have made any more sense than those here but the execution made it feel that it was your failure to grasp its meaning rather than that of the film to show it to you. Van Sant’s effort on the other hand stitches together the physical and the metaphysical  with superficial contrivances in order to take us through to a redemption  that feels as Mickey Mouse as any mainstream American film.  Perhaps that’s the problem - Van Sant couldn’t decide which hat to wear – indie auteur or middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser.  Either way, with this film, no-one wins.

Available from: Entertainment One




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