Unfortunately and no matter how hard we tried to isolate some good moments, forgive transgressions, even think that Gus Van Sant might have had something in mind that we simply could not see for two hours, “The Sea of Trees” is a film that should not carry his signature, let alone participate in the Competition of the Cannes Film Festival.
(What follows is written by a great admirer of Gus Van Sant and with real pain felt deep in the soul – nothing like Matthew McConaughey in the film)
“The Sea of Trees” is a bad film. It’s as simple and there would be no need to write anything more if it was not a Gus Van Sant film and and was not presented (from all the possible places in the world where you can see a bad film) at the Competition of the Cannes Film Festival, as the film that all expected would absolve him from the sinful past of “Restless” (2011) and “Promised Land” (2012).
Putting aside for a moment Cannes’ responsibility in this as the biggest film festival in the world and as another indication of how exactly the films competing for the Palme d’Or are selected, let us ponder on the third time (un)lucky Gus Van Sant. He seems here to have exceeded the worst of himself as if he had never been the director of “My Own Private Idaho”, “Elephant” and “Milk”, just to mention only three of the masterpieces of his filmography.
Try to grasp “The Sea of Trees”’ full of promises plot: a man (Matthew McConaughey) following the death of his wife (Naomi Watts) goes into a forest in Japan to commit suicide. In the form of a cliché, cheesy and cheap paperback literature melodrama, the film takes place both in the present, where in the dense, beautiful and inhospitable forest the hero will meet another man on a suicide misison (Ken Watanabe), but also in the past depicting his relationship with his wife.
What begins as a silent (almost in the style of “Gerry”) itinerary of two men in nature evolves scene after scene into an unprecedented drama, which Gus Van Sant directs as if he had abandoned himself in the pages of Nicholas Sparks’ entire literary oeuvre.
In the forest scenes, he attempts to set up, with poor results and naive cinephile references, a survival guide with new age details, undecided if what he is interested in is to provoke terror, build a dream universe or ponder on the meaning of life. In the scenes of the past, he seems to direct via skype since Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts start off playing a realistic family drama before ending up as the unfortunate protagonists of a second class daily soap opera.
The effort to isolate moments, which would give some sense to the above structure is in vain; Trying to find something in the words of “The Sea of Trees”’ heroes, which does not sound like a prohibitive cliché is equally in vain. As vain as Matthew McConaughey’s performance who plays more physically than ever trying to convince us about the hero’s pain or the hope that just before the final precipice, Gus Van Sant will “wake up” from his lethargy and will make once more a film that feels necessary.
Failing both as a philosophical essay on death and as a commentary on melodrama, “The Sea of Trees” (scripted by Chris Sparling of the exceptional “Buried”) finds Gus Van Sant almost absent, not knowing what he is doing, or why he is doing it, beyond the mainstream and even further than the easy, the obvious and the unintentionally ridiculous.
The big booing following the end credits at “The Sea of Trees”’ 68th Cannes Film Festival press viewing was not “evil,” as the text you have just read is not “evil” either, or the majority of reviews already written about this film.
It is the “punishment”, if one could call it that, of a great artist by his fans who having now lost their patience they see each film removing him from what he once was and can be. And who, no matter how difficult and painful it might seem, prefer to remove him from the pedestal while it is still early, before his already short filmography tilts dangerously to the wrong side.