Review: The Sea of Trees

Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe in The Sea of Trees

The Sea of Trees is a mystical, mysterious, spiritual journey about love. The trees are a forest called Aokigahara, known as The Sea of Trees. It’s a dense forest at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji where people go to commit suicide.

Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts and Ken Watanabe star in The Sea of Trees. It’s Matthew McConaughey’s vehicle completely. That seems to happen often when McConaughey is in a movie, even though Watts and Watanabe do great work as well.

Naomi Watts and Matthew Matthew McConaughey in The Sea of Trees

Arthur Brennan (McConaughey) and his wife Joan (Watts) have reached that stage some marriages reach where they hate each other and say vicious things to each other. He cheated on her. Now she’s madder than Virginia Woolf.

She gets ill; they reconcile. Then something horrible happens. Just before said horrible thing, Arthur realizes he doesn’t know Joan’s favorite color, season, or book.

The horrible thing (I won’t tell you what, it’s one of the surprises in the film) makes Arthur decide to end it all.

Arthur promised Joan that he would find the perfect place to die. A Google search tells him that Aokigahara is that place. Paradise. Or Purgatory, depending on your point of view.

Loaded with pills, Arthur walks into the mysterious forest and sits down. As he is downing pills he sees a man in pain, Takumi Nakamura (Watanabe). Arthur tries to help Takumi find the trail out of the forest. They fall off cliffs, get washed away in floods, get badly injured – it ain’t easy getting out of those trees.

Takumi is the living wisdom of the East. He is full of mysterious sayings and comments. He compares Arthur to Hansel in Hansel and Gretel. He says they are in Purgatory. After surviving a flood, they have a 3 AM chat around a fire. Arthur begins to cry about how sorry he is about the way he treated Joan for so long. Takumi says she is with him. The forest brings loved ones to you. He says that when a soul leaves the forest, an orchid grows in its place. Takumi tells Arthur the names of his wife and child.

When daylight comes, Takumi is unable to get up and walk. Arthur leaves to get help. He promises to come back. After 12 days in the hospital, Arthur does go back. In the spot where he left Takumi, he finds an orchid.

Back at home in the U.S., Arthur’s student Eric (Jordan Gavaris) tells him that what he thought were the names of Takumi’s wife and daughter are actually the Japanese words for a color and a season. Eric makes this comment to his professor because he sees the words on a paper sticking out of a book: Hansel and Gretel. As it turns out, Hansel and Gretel was Joan’s favorite book. Ah, the mystical messages from the universe make Arthur a man who wants to go on living. And growing orchids.

Gus Van Sant directed The Sea of Trees. The film is very serious about itself. Beautifully shot, both in the forest and in the flashbacks where we see Arthur and Joan together. The excellent actors do excellent work. There’s quiet, contemplative new age music throughout. The mysterious workings of the spirit and the mystic realm drive the plot. The hero returns to love while facing death. It’s sweet and satisfying. If you’re in the mood for something heartwarming about love, you’ll enjoy the film. The family could watch it together over the holidays.

The moralistic tone and the extra happy ending didn’t do anything for me, however. It was all so neat, so perfect. Maybe in the late 1940s, The Sea of Trees would have felt very important and remarkable. But in 2016, we need more than mystic forests to save us.

The Sea of Trees is currently available on Amazon Video, and probably other streaming services as well.

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