(Lainey: have you seen this video? It’s Matthew McConaughey speaking to the Texas Longhorns.
Speaking might be the wrong word. He might need his own verb. He’s McConaughey-ing them. McConaughey: to jack yourself up. MM is jacking up the football team. And they won this weekend Sunday against Notre Dame. Matthew, however, did not win this weekend. Or at least his movie didn’t. Last weekend, its second weekend, it made $36/theatre. Here is Sarah’s review of Sea Of Trees.)
After a bad reception at Cannes in 2015, Gus Van Sant’s suicide drama The Sea of Trees finally makes its way to the public, via a very low key day-and-date on demand release. It’s doing epically bad in theaters, even by the kinder, gentler standards of limited arthouse release, though, to be fair, we don’t know how it’s doing on demand because those figures aren’t published. I imagine that Matthew McConaughey’s name is enough to get people to order the movie, but I wonder how many people then turn it off halfway through. I bet all of them. I bet I’m the only person to order The Sea of Trees on demand and actually make it through to the end, because this movie is f*cking horrible and no one should watch it ever.
McConaughey stars as Arthur, a widowed college professor whose grief drives him to the Aokighara Forest in Japan, the so-called “suicide forest” which has already been the subject of one bad movie this year. (As if the Aokighara Forest doesn’t have enough public relations issues, can we stop putting it in terrible Western movies?) A series of flashbacks throughout the film show us Arthur’s past with his wife, Joan, the alcoholic breadwinner in their family, still angry and resentful after Arthur had an affair. After undergoing risky brain surgery to determine that it WASN’T cancer, she dies in a car accident, which makes Joan the victim of narrative overkill.
Once in the forest, Arthur takes his pills and sits down to die, only to be interrupted by a Japanese man, Takumi (Ken Watanabe), also in the forest to kill himself. Arthur gets up to help the injured Takumi, and suddenly the two men decide they want to live and begin trying to find a way out of the oppressive, primeval forest (here played by a state forest in Massachusetts). The two men debate atheism and spirituality—the #1 self-important movie conversation that makes me want to kill myself to escape it—and Arthur tells Takumi about his problems with Joan, which basically amount to: She wouldn’t stop being mad that I slept with someone else.
Gus Van Sant is too good of a filmmaker for any movie he makes to be ugly, so Trees, at the very least, includes some beautiful nature photography. And credit where it’s due, he handles the spectacle of the deceased in the forest tastefully. But that’s where goodwill for this movie ends, because within ten minutes of showing up on screen, Takumi seems like a classic example of the offensive Magical Minority trope, and then he turns out to be nothing more than a hallucination of Arthur’s, which means he’s an actual magical minority. Ken Watanabe, one of the great empathetic actors of our time, deserves so much more than this.
This mess was written by Chris Sparling, who also wrote the execrable Ryan Reynolds’ snuff film Buried. This script is so fundamentally flawed I can’t imagine anyone wanting to produce it, although given his fondness for Contemplative Lost White Guys, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised Van Sant was the one to pick it up.
I have so many questions about the process of making Trees, starting with how many uncredited screenwriters took a pass at this script. Because Sparling’s is the sole credited name, but given how filmmaking works, it’s highly likely at least one other person had a hand here. How does Sparling’s draft hold up after Van Sant got his hands on it? Is Sparling the only credited writer because this IS mostly his work, or is it because everyone else recognized how awful this story is, and didn’t want their name on it and so didn’t bother with union arbitration?
Did Van Sant get that Takumi is a straight-up offensive stereotype or was he so enamored of the idea of a white guy lost in Aokighara he looked straight past it? What did Matthew McConaughey think? And was Naomi Watts glad when her character died, so she could be done with this movie? I was certainly glad when it was over.