There appear to be two Gus Van Sants. There’s the groundbreaking indie/arthouse guy, who kicked off his career with “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho,” directed the enormously entertaining “To Die For,” and won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for “Elephant,” one of a quartet of fascinating experimental pictures. This guy even got a major studio to finance a shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho” that was basically an art project.
Then there’s the other one. The mainstream Gus Van Sant, who got started with the Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting,” and has since made, to increasingly diminishing returns, films like “Finding Forrester,” “Milk,” “Restless,” and “Promised Land,” movies that could have come from just about anyone — more Ron Howard than Gregg Araki.
His latest, “The Sea Of Trees,” seems at times like an attempt to reconcile these two directorial personas. It features an A-list star on a hot streak, a couple of highly acclaimed co-stars, and serious, tear-jerking material, but also looked to be a return to Van Sant’s more lyrical fare. The film is indeed a combination of the two sides, but unfortunately it mixes the thrills of “Gerry” with the subtlety of “Finding Forrester” and the originality of the “Psycho” redo.
Penned by “Buried” and “ATM” writer Chris Sparling, the film opens with Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) dumping his car at the airport with the keys still in it, and heading on a one-way flight to Tokyo. Once there, he heads to Aokogihara, also known as the titular sea of trees or the Suicide Forest — a fourteen-square-mile stretch of woodland at the base of Mount Fuji that’s become Japan’s most popular spot to take your own life, with over 100 managing the feat in recent years.
Arthur intends to join their number for reasons that aren’t immediately clear (but, as we’re clued in by flashbacks very swiftly, they have to do with his wife Joan, played by Naomi Watts). But just as he’s starting to do the deed, he hears the moans of another man, Takumi (Ken Watanabe), who is bleeding from the wrists after trying to kill himself due to being passed over for a promotion, only to have changed his mind after thinking of his family. Arthur agrees to help him to safety, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.
The initial stages of the film, as McConaughey travels to the suicide forest, feel like a return to something like “Gerry,” with a patient tone that consists mostly of a lot of shots of trees. If nothing else (and there really is very little else), the film does look very pretty, with DP Kasper Tuxen (“Beginners“) giving a picturesque, twilight feel to some very beautiful locations. One suspects it may have been the trip that convinced everyone to sign up to the project.
Once McConaughey and Watanabe meet, however, the movie becomes more familiar. It’s part survival drama, of the kind that’s been in vogue recently with films like “127 Hours,” “All Is Lost,” and “Gravity,” as the pair battle the elements and various injuries to return to civilization, and part soapy flashbacks to the disintegration of McConaughey’s marriage to Watts, a high-functioning alcoholic.
It should be said that any reports of this marking the end of the McConaissance aren’t quite fair. The actor isn’t on top form here, but he’s alright (alright alright), bringing a steely calm to Arthur when we meet him, and nicely selling one of the film’s more effective monologues, as he describes the way that, even at their worst, he and his ex-wife would do nice things for each other, but hide them, to avoid having to be thanked. It’s a complex, unusual moment, and one that the film could have done well to have more of.
His costars, however, don’t fare so well. Watts again seems to have ended up with a severely underwritten part, switching from savage alcoholic to saintly martyr on a dime, and never managing to elevate the role into a human being. Watanabe’s character, if you can call it that, is even worse. He’s essentially a device, a wise Japanese man who gets to be a bit mysterious, drop in a backstory that relies mostly on generalizations about the nation (“You do not understand my culture,” he says at one point, possibly to the film’s writer), and then slip into unconsciousness.
It’s difficult to buy either him or McConaughey as people who are, or who recently were, suicidally depressed, but then it’s difficult to buy anyone in the film as a human being who says or does things that human beings do. Witness an early scene between McConaughey and some of his academic colleagues that’s mostly reminiscent of the Mitchell & Webb sketch about a poorly-researched medical drama where doctors run around saying things like, “Nurse, get me the medicine!”
Then again, you could generously attempt to suggest that this might be deliberate, given a number of twists the film throws at you during some of its half-a-dozen endings. Of course, they’re as contrived and phony as anything else that happens. One in particular is obvious from about fifteen minutes in, but takes its sweet, sweet time to reveal its full stupidity on screen. At nearly two hours, the movie is wildly overstretched in general.
From the cloying, ever-present score to the complete lack of narrative momentum, it all adds up to a film that’s easily Van Sant’s worst, and is a sad black mark on McConaughey’s mostly excellent recent run. Ultimately, “Sea Of Trees” feels like an entirely appropriate title: it makes you feel like you’re drowning, and it’s full of sap. [F]