Review: Gus Van Sant’s maligned ‘Sea of Trees’ is a deeply reflective experience

“The Sea of Trees”
Ken Watanabe, left, and Matthew McConaughey in the movie “The Sea of Trees.”
(Jake Giles Netter)

Given that it was booed after screening at 2015’s Cannes Film Festival and is opening against a tide of poor advance reviews, Gus Van Sant’s “The Sea of Trees” proves a stronger movie experience than one might expect. It’s anchored by a fine, understated performance by Matthew McConaughey and a deeply felt, if at times melodramatic, story that proves strangely immersive. 

McConaughey plays Arthur, a depressed scholar who travels from Massachusetts to Japan to take his own life in the vast Aokigahara forest, a legendary suicide spot. (It was also the setting for this year’s supernatural thriller “The Forest.”) Once there, things don’t go quite as planned, especially when Arthur meets a Japanese family man (Ken Watanabe) also preparing to kill himself. A bond of sorts forms between the two melancholy men until Arthur must spring into action to save them both — physically and spiritually.

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Meanwhile, Arthur flashes back to what led him to consider suicide: his guilt over the demise of his alcoholic wife (Naomi Watts), with whom he shared a troubled, complex relationship.


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Director Van Sant, who notably ping-pongs between more mainstream and riskier film fare, lands somewhere in the middle here, carefully — and mostly successfully — juggling the intimate demands of Chris Sparling’s reflective script with the tale’s ethereal, often demanding backdrop. Stirring cinematography by Kasper Tuxen is another plus.


‘The Sea of Trees’


Rating: PG-13, for mature thematic material, some disturbing images and brief strong language

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood; also on VOD

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