The Sea of Trees – Cannes 2015

Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Director: Gus Van Sant
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts
Rating: * ½ (out of 5)

If a Gus Van Sant movie collapses alone in the woods, does anybody hear it fall? Not if the vociferous booing of an incredulous Cannes press audience drowns it out, that’s for sure. The first bona fide write-off of this year’s festival, this hokey tale spins around an American professor (Matthew McConaughey) who resolves to kill himself in Japan’s Aokigahara Forest at the foot of Mt. Fuji – a popular suicide spot, apparently – until he meets a dishevelled, wounded native (Ken Watanabe) and the two lost souls try to find their way out.

With true red-white-and-blue condescension, Watanabe’s character is nothing but a prop for our hero’s struggles, as the narrative flits between the woods and McConaughey’s troubled marriage to Naomi Watts (yet again suffering onscreen like a red-eyed trouper). If the forest survival struggle plods on, the homefront storyline wallows in the cheapest melodramatic tactics to yank our heartstrings, until finally both strands are clamped together with the cloying contrivance and fortune-cookie mysticism of a bad Lifetime Movie.

You don’t have to be a Van Sant snob, priding his more ornery work (Last Days, in which he tackled suicide; or Gerry’s two men lost in the wild) over more audience-friendly fare like Good Will Hunting or Milk, to recognise The Sea of Trees as self-indulgent hackwork. From Mason Bates’s maudlin, button-pushing score to Christopher Sparling’s trite script, in which a man bemoans not really knowing his wife because he can’t identify her favourite colour or season (and the pay-off for this must be seen to be believed), this is like a fan-fiction Nicholas Sparks rip-off, shocking both from a filmmaker of Van Sant’s calibre and a Cannes competitor. McConaughey works hard but it’s a vanity project in all the wrong ways and, to paraphrase his trademark, al’wrong, al’wrong, al’wrong.

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