In Sea of Trees, the real-life Japanese forest at the base of Mount Fuji (Aokigahara) proves to be as much of a character in the story Gus Van Sant tells. Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) is a man adrift, prepared to kill himself in the Aokigahara as he mourns his wife (Naomi Watts). But when he meets Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), who is also prepared to kill himself, Brennan’s arc changes.
Let’s be clear: Van Sant’s filmography is pretty awesome, even if you’ve only seen Good Will Hunting. McConaughey? Watts? Watanabe? Terrific. But Sea of Trees is … not. Yes, photography in the forest is eye-popping (and Kasper Tuxen makes things look excellent). But this story about death, suicide, depression, and relationships gets lost somewhere in the Aokigahara and never really makes it out alive.
We feel for Brennan because his wife isn’t a real princess, but we’re not sure he’s a prince either. But the transformation from broken human being emotionally to broken human being physically makes her more akin to the women in films we’ve seen – and complained about. She’s not really even as much a character as the forest; she’s just a plot device.
Somehow, the forest seems like it should have been way more intriguing than it really was. But it only proves there are better ways to deal with our grief and struggle. Like community, not isolation; like prayer, not abandonment; like crying out for help, not giving up.
Special features on the Blu-ray – the lone featurette “The Sea of Trees: a Story of Beauty and Tragedy.”