I seem to remember the buzz surrounding this film’s pre-production. After all, the idea alone of signing Matthew McConaughey almost right after he received his well-deserved Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club would have been enough to excite prospective audiences. Add Naomi Watts to the cast, who was also enjoying some acclaim following her performance in The Impossible, with Ken Watanabe and – don’t forget to mention – Gus Van Sant behind the camera in a drama about a man travelling to Japan’s infamous Aokigahara forest to commit suicide, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to convince anyone that The Sea of Trees was worth looking forward to.
I suppose the fact that the film was subsequently so overwhelmingly panned that many distributors decided not to release it for a very long time and quietly sold it off to streaming services a few years later is a powerful enough indicator that great movies are difficult to make. It is simply not enough to secure the best talent – both in front and behind the camera – and get a script that theoretically looks like an emotionally-charged and intellectually-titillating awards contender to make a successful movie. Cinema isn’t additive. Granted, some films succeed on that basis but it is by no means a rule. On the other hand, what I think does constitute a rule of thumb is that a great script is highly unlikely to yield a terrible film. It might not be a masterpiece. It might not be great. But even the most talentless filmmakers and wooden actors can stumble through an amazing script and make the audience respond in a positive manner.
The Sea of Trees upholds this rule by virtue of showing that even the best talent in the world can’t do much with a borderline criminal story. You could cram an All-Star team of actors, editors, cinematographers, composers and have the whole thing overseen by Stanley Kubrick and this movie would still be just as bad. In fact, you might successfully argue that legendary filmmakers like Kubrick (if he was alive) would immediately recognize the story as unpalatable and either walked out or rewrote it to make it sing. Well, let’s just say that I wish Gus Van Sant had the foresight to do so because there’s honestly something interesting hidden within this movie and maybe with some much-needed pruning and strategic (and ruthless) revisioning, The Sea of Trees would have had a fighting chance to become something more than a pretentious turd desperately trying to be an ersatz Alejandro Iñárritu.
Sadly, as much as I wish I could write about a movie I’d love to have seen, I am stuck writing about a movie I did see. And what I witnessed fits very well with the established consensus found online. The Sea of Trees truly is ‘dull, maudlin and fundamentally empty’ despite its best intentions to incite a conversation about the fleeting nature of life and the importance of our relationships in the journey that is the earthly existence. In fact, the glass-half-full side of me wants to believe there is something to admire in Van Sant’s film because it’s very competently put together in terms of craft, the score is formidable and the performances are all enjoyable to watch, so much that the film occasionally succeeded in putting me under its spell. But then… the characters would open their mouths and what would come pouring out of them would be nothing short of offensively moronic truisms. And then… they would do stuff. And what they would do would be equally uninspired. You just can’t have a good movie if all you have up your sleeve is the idea of recording talented actors in a competent way. You’ve got to have a good story. You’ve got to give these actors characters to inhabit. You’ve got to give their lines some meaning. Some weight. Something. Anything!
You know, normally I can walk past terrible films and leave them in my rear-view mirror, but I don’t think I can let this one go with just a slap on the wrist. Not when someone like Gus Van Sant, one of the more interesting filmmakers working today, has presided over this travesty. How am I supposed to parse the fact The Sea of Trees is found next to Milk? Next to Drugstore Cowboy? Next to Paranoid Park? Next to the God-damn Good Will Hunting?
Let this be a reminder that nobody is perfect. People make bad choices, pursue tainted visions, or believe that what they have on their hands is more worthwhile than it is for one reason or another. The Sea of Trees is one such mistake. It’s a poorly written, turgid mess that aspires to be a cerebral progeny to Babel but sadly has nothing to back it up. It’s a film equivalent of a landschaft painting you’d find in your local charity shop, executed using correct techniques, composed in a textbook way, and superficially pleasing to the eye. But it does nothing to stir you internally. It has no soul. It’s just empty. Void of artistic voice. And just as I wouldn’t want to hang a schmaltzy painting of a swan in the middle of the lake on my wall, I don’t want to have anything to do with The Sea of Trees.