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.
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.
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