Cinematic Releases: The Sea of Trees (2016) - Reviewed

Each year of the annual prestigious Cannes Film Festival, I always find myself more interested in the films that got roundly booed than the Palme d’Or winners or critical favorites.  Called the ‘toughest audience in the world’ by many, it seems customary for booing to ensue at Cannes and this year the target is one of Cannes’ very own past Palme d’Or winners, Gus Van Sant.  The film in question is The Sea of Trees, the less exploitative, slightly artier and far schmaltzier movie about Japan’s Aokigahara suicide forest released in the same year as The Forest with an overqualified yet limited cast featuring Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe and Naomi Watts.  Selected for competition for the Palme d’Or, the distinguished and at times divisive auteur behind Good Will Hunting, Drugstore Cowboy, Elephant and Milk, the hotly anticipated The Sea of Trees was met with a deafening chorus of booing and jeers, going down in infamy as one of the worst films shown at the 2015 festival before sitting indefinitely on the shelf.  Only now is the $25 million film getting released simultaneously in theaters and VOD, where in only its second week it barely pulled in $800,000 and left multiplexes as swiftly as it appeared out of nowhere.  As of current, it is holding 9% on Rotten Tomatoes, the lowest score for a Gus Van Sant film to date, surpassing the notoriety caused by his 1998 remake of Psycho.  For such an esteemed and respected auteur, how could the winner of numerous prestigious film festivals from around the world and director of so many critical darlings have fallen so hard this time around? 

I'm not comfortable with you
hugging me. Get your filthy
hands of me now. 
As it turns out, it’s because it took a genuinely well made, well-acted, beautifully shot, hauntingly scored and existentially terrifying subject and churned out the most manipulative hunk of saccharine trash since Mimi Leder’s Pay it Forward.  What started out as the most haunting and abstract meditation on life and death since Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain ends as a Hallmark Entertainment made-for-TV movie that just so happened to have A-list actors and a gifted, if not occasionally pretentious, auteur behind it.  I won’t reveal how or where, but the tipping point where this initially taut and eerie foray into the Aokigahara forest goes belly-up sticks out like a sore thumb and it’s a real shame.  Watching The Sea of Trees with McConaughey’s tear-filled soliloquys ruminating about the meaning of life and death, I have a better understanding now of why the third act of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar came off as so silly for so many.  I myself can still watch and enjoy Nolan’s melodrama and McConaghey’s tear streams but in The Sea of Trees it successfully as well as unintentionally traverses into self-parody.  Naomi Watts also seems to have latched onto the tug-at-your-heartstrings schmaltz that was put to better use in the equally manipulative but far less silly 21 Grams and while far from an incompetent performance, it feels forced in this case.  In other words, the cast is underutilized when they aren’t meandering through the woods and burying their faces into their palms. 

Generally I find myself liking, if not appreciating, what a Cannes dog can and has done in the past.  Films like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Only God Forgives, Enter the Void, The Brown Bunny, Southland Tales and Marie Antoinette have all been savaged at Cannes yet are now cult favorites with effusive critical reappraisal.  All have something unique to offer even if it wasn’t to everyone’s liking.  If nothing else, they’ve turned me against notions of artistic pretentious elitism often harbored at the festival.  But every now and again, films like Grace of Monaco and now The Sea of Trees come along where upon seeing them I get the hate they’ve received and don’t feel the least bit bad about the nose dives either film took at the box office.  Monaco, for instance, went from being this prospective Oscar bait vehicle with a distinguished cast behind it to being dumped on Lifetime Network in the U.S.  The Sea of Trees is sadly for Gus Van Sant an artistic and commercial failure, a film with many virtues that manages to squander and undo everything that came before the third act, thus embodying that dreaded catchphrase of ‘ruining the whole thing’.  I have faith and full belief Van Sant will recover from what is easily his greatest misfire to date as a director.  Until that moment comes, my friendly suggestion is to pass on The Sea of Trees.  Everyone involved has done better and the subject itself deserves a far better movie than this farcical and sugary chocolate turkey.


- Andrew Kotwicki

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