“Whatever variety of trees grow in Japan’s infamous Aokigahara—otherwise known as the Suicide Forest—American director Gus Van Sant‘s lethally tedious new film makes this much clear: they’re dangerously full of sap.” So begins Guy Lodge, writing for Time Out. “Van Sant has long exhibited a curiously split directorial personality, producing one dripping barrel of schmaltz like Restless for every Elephant-style study in austere severity. Still, he may never have made a film quite as banal as this life-after-near-death drama, which resembles one of Japanese auteur Naomi Kawase’s spiritualist tone poems brutally hijacked in the editing suite by M. Night Shyamalan.”
“One way to pass the time during The Sea of Trees—preferably during one of Matthew McConaughey’s interminable misty-eyed monologues—is to try and figure out exactly how many bad movies the actor, screenwriter Chris Sparling and director Gus Van Sant have managed to squeeze into their tale of a man’s lonely quest to take his own life,” writes Variety‘s Justin Chang. “Almost impressive in the way it shifts from dreary two-hander to so-so survival thriller to terminal-illness weepie to M. Night Shyamalan/Nicholas Sparks-level spiritual hokum, this risibly long-winded drama is perhaps above all a profound cultural insult, milking the lush green scenery of Japan’s famous Aokigahara forest for all it’s worth, while giving co-lead Ken Watanabe little to do other than moan in agony, mutter cryptically, and generally try to act as though McConaughey’s every word isn’t boring him (pardon the expression) to death.”
“Whoa, what a dud. Where to start?” wonders Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com. Perhaps with McConaughey’s mathematician, Arthur Brennan, and Watanabe’s Takumi Nakamura. “Quickly and predictably, both men decide they want to live, and begin futile attempts to find the way out. For a man who wanted to die, Arthur proves as impossible to kill as the Terminator. In addition to being drugged, he tumbles off a cliff from a great height, lands on his back on perilous sharp rocks, is impaled through the guts by a thick tree branch, swept away by a flash flood, and takes yet another fall from a cliff…. Many of this film’s plot twists are both predictable and unintentionally funny, triggering more than a few titters. I can’t even give away the good stuff.”
In flashbacks, we learn that Arthur’s “wife Joan is a bitter alcoholic who develops a brain tumor: come the end, this is the least of her problems.” The Telegraph‘s Tim Robey: “Perhaps the greatest warning signal is that she’s played by Naomi Watts, a terrific actress at her best, but one whose regular association with trauma and misery, in films such as 21 Grams, We Don’t Live Here Anymore and The Impossible, makes it hard to give a fresh account of the most sheerly unlucky character she’s ever played. Joan is a kind of greatest hits Watts performance, a Who’s Afraid of Naomi Watts?, and while she and McConaughey go at it committedly, their scenes have the unbelievable, very acted rhythm of canned domestics closing early on Broadway.”
“Ultimately there is not a hint of pathos to be gleaned from this cliche-ridden parable,” writes Adam Woodward at Little White Lies. The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw agrees that The Sea of Trees is a “fantastically annoying and dishonest tear-jerker.” More from Gregory Ellwood (HitFix, C), Charles Gant (Screen), Eric Kohn (Indiewire, D) and Oliver Lyttelton (Playlist, F).
Criticwire‘s Sam Adams collects a slew of tweets from critics reporting on the sea of boos that concluded the press screening, chorus which has upset Deadline‘s Pete Hammond no end. He argues that it’s given “critics here, many of whom follow the pack, license to kill and it’s already begun with some unmerciful pans from trades and tweets. With the Internet, it can just be deadly. I totally disagree and was moved by the film, so I am thankful there was no rude outburst during it to ruin it for me.”
Updates, 5/18: “I must confess that I feel some affection for this misbegotten picture,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve. “It’s so damn dumb, and so blissfully ignorant of its stupidity, that it becomes almost perversely touching.”
“Barring a handful of unmotivated close-ups and diffusion-filter smears, Van Sant’s direction is indifferent and anonymous,” finds Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. The Sea of Trees “features, among other things: a character who is implied to be a forest spirit or ghost, but then turns out to be the ghost of another character; a character who is revealed to have died, but not in the way the viewer is led to presume they had; a car crash that is incessantly foreshadowed for three solid minutes; portrayals of depression and academia that succeed only in making Irrational Man look better; and at least five false endings.”
“With 2002’s Gerry,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage, “Van Sant already made a film about two men stranded in nature that used their mounting struggle for survival as a means of exploring existential themes. That film’s minimalism put a lot of trust in the power of images to speak without dialogue and equal trust in the audience’s ability to assimilate their import. Van Sant must have suffered a devastating disillusionment in the intervening thirteen years, as The Sea of Trees feels compelled to spoon-feed every single aspect of its painfully banal story.”
“Gus van Sant has always divided his attention between formal experimentation and saccharin redemption stories,” writes James Lattimer at the House Next Door, “but seldom has he veered so far toward the latter as he does here. Between a script whose main influence would appear to be a screenwriting manual, the constant laychromose strings on the soundtrack, and the complete lack of visual distinction, the odd shot of sunlight through trees aside, there’s little to suggest that this isn’t some cobbled-together studio star vehicle, rather than the auteurist placefiller the competition selectors clearly deem it to be.”
“There’s nothing wrong with sappiness, just so long as it’s done a little more smartly than this,” writes Tim Grierson in Paste. More from David Acacia (International Cinephile Society), Ioncinema (1/5) and Richard Lawson (Vanity Fair).
“Getting booed at Cannes can be a rite of passage,” Alison Willmore reminds us at Buzzfeed. “David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, and Michelangelo Antonioni were all hooted at for films that would go on to have great reputations. Provocateurs like Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noé regularly receive combinations of applause and derision, courtesy of divisive, boundary-pushing movies like Antichrist and Enter the Void.” But “the jeers that greeted The Sea of Trees…had nothing to do with the movie being too challenging or daring.” Indiewire‘s Nigel M. Smith reports on responses to the booing from Van Sant and McConaughey, who says, “Anyone has as much right to boo as they do to ovate.”