Friday, August 26, 2016

Movie with Abe: Sea of Trees

Sea of Trees
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Released August 26, 2016

When a man drives his car to the airport, leaves the keys inside, and boards a flight to Japan that he purchased the night before with no intention of getting a return ticket, it’s a good bet that there’s reason for concern. Nothing more than that is presented at the start of “The Sea of Trees,” which finds its protagonist, Arthur (Matthew McConaughey) making his way to Aokigahara, a vast forest commonly known as Suicide Forest or by its other name, which serves as the title of this film. From there, two winding journeys begin, one physical and harrowing through the forest and the other to explore what led to Arthur’s one-way trip to Japan.

There are two others in this small cast of characters who, separately, spend most of the film with Arthur. As he enters the forest, he meets Takumi (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese man whose recent loss of his job has led him to this place as a way to cope with his shame and is in bad condition. The two help each other as they realize that they have lost any trace of the trail and encounter obstacles and the harshness of the elements. Throughout this walk, Arthur remembers toxic moments from his marriage to Joan (Naomi Watts) and the events that helped to bring them back together before her death. Neither story is particularly pleasant or inviting.

This film has all the recipe ingredients for success. McConaughey has made an impressive transition from shirtless romantic comedy lead to Oscar winner with “Dallas Buyers Club” and followed that up with a strong, dark performance in “True Detective.” Watts and Watanabe are both Oscar nominees working regularly who have floated among many genres. Director Gus Van Sant has made well-received films from “Good Will Hunting” to “Milk” and ventured into more experimental territory with “Elephant” and “Paranoid Park.” And screenwriter Chris Sparling earned praise for penning “Buried,” which was much better than most expected.

But there’s just something here that doesn’t click. Most critics panned this film unforgivingly, and while it’s not nearly that bad, it also doesn’t ascend to the quality it should easily be able to achieve. McConaughey and Watts have both dealt with tragedy onscreen before, but these performances don’t feel as genuine. The same goes for Watanabe, who has played a mysterious foreigner providing advice to an American in better contexts. The film plays out very slowly, and the story takes a few turns that are thought-provoking but ultimately not as impactful as they could be. In all, it’s an intriguing experience, but far from a vital one.


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