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First Reviews: Gus Van Sant’s ‘The Sea of Trees’ Is Cannes’ First Stinker

First Reviews: Gus Van Sant's 'The Sea of Trees' Is Cannes' First Stinker

Every year a movie emerges as Cannes favorite whipping boy. This year, the odds-on favorite for that unwanted position is Gus Van Sant’s “The Sea of Trees,” which was loudly booed after its first screenings. Matthew McConaughey, in a performance that puts a significant dent in the McConaissance, plays a gloomy American who makes a pilgrimage to the Japanese “suicide forest” Aokigahara (aka the Sea of Trees), where dozens of people end their lives every year. Drawing comparisons to such lowly forbears as Nicholas Sparks novels, the movie is being pummeled from every angle: as sentimental, contrived, and even offensive in its treatment of a serious subject. We’ll post more long reviews as they subject — only a handful of U.K. critics had advance access — but it seems unlikely a brief reflection is going to turn critics around.

Reviews of “The Sea of Trees”

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

Gus Van Sant is the rare formalist who has been known to depart into more conventional, at times mawkish work with varied outcomes, from the now-classic “Good Will Hunting” and equally compelling “Milk” to the middling “Restless.” None of these forays, however, lead to such painfully misguided results as “The Sea of Trees,” a hackneyed story of one man’s journey toward spiritual uplift following the abrupt death of his wife (Naomi Watts). Not even Matthew McConaughey can sustain the mushy, amateurish story, which digs itself a deeper hole as it moves along. The established talents of both director and star only serve to magnify the many wrong moves that this stunning misfire takes.

Peter Bradshaw, Guardian

Gus Van Sant returns to the Cannes competition, and returns — horribly — to a middleweight syrupy-commercial mode of film-making into which he is capable of switching so easily. He may have permanently deserted the more challenging and rigorous style of movies like the Palme d’Or-winning “Elephant,” “Last Days” or indeed his poetically mysterious “Gerry,” about two guys lost in the wilderness. This fantastically annoying and dishonest tear-jerker is almost like a parodic version of that movie. For all its apparent sombreness and thoughtfulness, “The Sea of Trees” is an exasperatingly shallow film on an important and agonizingly painful subject — depression and suicide. This it slathers in palliative sentimentality. The gooey musical score with strings and woodwind, kicking in from the first airport scene, unmistakably signals brimming-eyed self-pity and self-forgiveness.

Tim Robey, Telegraph

Van Sant wanted to study a man drowning in sorrow and guide him towards the light. But the guidance he gets is fake, forced, and unbearably tricksy, a kind of suicide rehab with gotcha devices. Like Aokigahara itself, the whole film needs cordoning off with safety rope and “Keep Out” signs. There’s nothing to see inside.

Adam Woodward, Little White Lies

Ever since his mid-career reinvention as a serious character actor, there hasn’t been a single blot on Matthew McConaughey’s report card. His undeniable range and star wattage have virtually afforded him carte blanche in Hollywood. And that’s no bad thing – right now we’d watch just about anything with him in. Accordingly, the immediate feeling of watching The Sea of Trees is one of crushing regret. Not at witnessing the first bad post-McConaissance performance, more a deep, hopeless longing for all the prospective parts turned down in its favor.

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