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Entries in Sea of Trees/The [2016] (1)

Saturday
Sep032016

The Sea of Trees (2016)

The Sea of Trees doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but neither does suicide. In tackling grief subjectively, director Gus Van Sant and writer Chis Sparling have created a uniquely problematic film that’s shaky from a narrative standpoint but steady in its portrayal of the places (inconceivable to most, to the lucky) the mind can go when everything seems irredeemably pointless. Those places are often false in both their logic and promises of sweet release—two qualities that often attract us to the movies, and whose absence in The Sea of Trees makes recommending it a tricky proposition.

Following the death of his wife, Joan (Naomi Watts), college professor Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) visits Aokigahara, the sprawling Japanese woods known as “The Suicide Forest” (and as the titular “Sea of Trees”). He and Joan had had a long and rocky marriage before her cancer diagnosis, but the events leading up to her death (which I won’t give away, but will address later*) sapped Arthur of his will to live. While sitting on a rock, contemplatively swallowing pills one by one, Arthur sees man with bloody wrists stumbling through the greenery. His name is Takumi (Ken Watanabe), and he is lost.

It’s neither a spoiler nor a surprise that Takumi isn’t what he appears to be. The Sea of Trees is like an emotional super-cut of The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, and It’s a Wonderful Life, complete with guardian spirits; flashbacks to dark times that seem lovely in retrospect, and which take on new meaning in the face of mortality; and geography as a metaphor for man’s circular quest to find reason in a universe governed by laws he wasn’t meant to understand. Takumi, having been nursed back to coherence by Arthur, even points out a special type of flower whose bloom means that a spirit has left the purgatory of Aokigahara behind (a new-ish twist on “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings”).

You may be thinking, “Great, another nonsensical Matthew McConaughey movie about Themes Too Grand to Comprehend.” Yes, The Sea of Trees is one of those, but unlike Interstellar, Van Sant and Sparling keep us on the narrative rails—even if we’re unsure of which stop we’re supposed to get off at.** I've read complaints that the film is downright silly in its opaqueness. Why, for example, do some ghosts appear as themselves, while others take forms that are more metaphorical in nature--especially when the former would clear up a lot of confusion for both the other characters and the audience?

I submit to you that these are not necessarily matters the filmmakers need to (or should) concern themselves with. Is 2001: A Space Odyssey ruined because, for some reason, Dr. Bowman turns into a giant space-baby at the end? No, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke left us with something to chew on, a piece of a part of a slice of a mystery that someone in that film's universe (pun accidental but apt) understands--even if the audience doesn't.

I've used the analogy of the ant and the cell phone before, and it bears repeating here: an ant walking across the screen of a cell phone might feel a vibration, might notice changes in its environment's light patterns, but to the ant it's just an obstacle to maneuver around. The ant has no concept of digital technology, of audible communication as we know it. You can also rule out its grasping cultures, continents, and everything else that this funny-looking hill was designed to connect, store, and disseminate.

So why should human beings expect the governing laws of the universe to conform to our ultimately ant-like understanding of it? Our ideas about how the afterlife should or shouldn't work (for those willing to even entertain such notions, if only artistically) have no sway over the greater governing reality--whatever that may be.

Someone suggesting that a character's interactions with otherworldly or extra-terrestrial forces "don't make sense" is not necessarily the stopping point for me. Going back to suicide being an unnatural, nonsensical act, Van Sant and Sparling create an unnerving clash of emotions from the outset. The bitter, passive-aggressive (and often aggressive-aggressive) husband-and-wife scenes are tinged with sadness, with regret that, at some point, their hopeful, love-filled life began to go horribly wrong. Brief moments of non-communication snowballed into years of reluctance to even share feelings with one another. Eventually, Arthur and Joan found that they could only express their winnowing love through secret acts of domestic tidying (refilling a favorite tea or pressing shirts when the other spouse wasn't around).

The cherry on top of this melodramatic but achingly sincere take on marriage is Mason Bates' wildly incongruous score. If you swapped out this pleasant and upbeat score for creepy horror-movie music and changed the film's title to The Suicide Forest, you wouldn't be that far off from an M. Night Shyamalan thriller***. For much of the movie, I actively tuned out the weird musical choices, so convinced was I that I knew what kind of eerie, Twilight Zone-style ending Van Sant and Sparling were headed for. In retrospect, Bates' saccharine score was a naked tell of what I assume was the filmmakers' real intent: to offer a bird's eye view of depression (via the score, which, of course, exists outside the reality of the story) while letting the visuals, performances, and dialogue take us on a guided (subjective) tour of depression's peaks and valleys.

Aokigahara (as the film depicts it) is a beautiful expanse, the perfect place to appreciate silence and to feel sufficiently small in the grand scheme of things. Yet hundreds of people go there every year to kill themselves. It's the ultimate irony of being so wrapped up in one's fears, guilt, memories and warped perception of self that one literally cannot see the forest for the trees. In these woods, Arthur receives a message that he isn't alone, and indeed never was. On the surface, it's a cheesy line that we've heard in a hundred movies better than this one, and it usually has something to do with ghosts.

Thematically, though, it's a reminder to us (more so than to Arthur) that we are always surrounded by people waiting to be loved and engaged with. Arthur lived in a sea of trees before entering The Suicide Forest. Yet he got so caught up in striving for a better career; for mourning the loss of his youth and romantic connection to Joan; and God knows real or imagined dramas we all carry around with us, that he couldn't find contentment in the admiration of his students, or significant enough engagement in revitalizing his wife's waning affections.

The Sea of Trees is neither a traditional relationship drama nor a run-of-the-mill ghost story. Its supernatural forces don't follow the rules of spirituality as we've classically recognized them in cinema. Whether Gus Van Sant and Chris Sparling meant to explore all the avenues I've posited here, or if their film is just a mess that stumbled upon profundity, I don't know. But this is not a film to be dismissed from the forest floor. Appreciating it requires height, perspective.

*Hell, let's just poach the elephant in the room. Late in the film, there's a scene involving an ambulance that telegraphs the scene after it from space. Van Sant uses such weary framing to service an already tired device that I wondered if the filmmaker simply forgot to remove this placeholder plot point from his movie. If you've seen The Sea of Trees, you know the part I'm talking about. If you haven't, just trust me and skip past the couple of scenes featuring an ambulance. You'll thank me later.

**Come to think of it, both films share a wonky third act device, in which McConaughey’s character—having glimpsed the cosmic grand-plan at the expense of nearly getting killed—ventures back into the unknown to rescue a loved one.

***Or the actual Aokigahara horror movie, The Forest, from earlier this year.