The Sea of Trees

A suicidal American befriends a Japanese man lost in a forest near Mt. Fuji and the two search for a way out.

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  • ★★★★★ review by Ryan Pearce on Letterboxd

    Sometimes, a film just feels like it is speaking to you.

    In 2015, I had a life changing experience: my beautiful 2 year old daughter was diagnosed with leukaemia. The moment we were told by the doctors, I felt as if the floor gave way underneath me. It was an out of body experience I cannot describe, brought about from shock and grief.

    It's now August 2017, and my daughter is still here, fighting a brave battle. I have had to be brave for her, or at least wear a mask of bravery. My emotions and thoughts flip from one minute to the next: I'm grateful for her still being here, and terrified of the possibility of losing her.

    I also look back now and think about the 2 years before her diagnosis and think about how I acted. I am proud to say, I've always been a loving father. But, like all parents, I guess I have some regrets. I should've played with her more, taken her to the park more regularly. I shouldn't have complained about the lack of sleep, or how many nappies I changed. If there is a positive to come out of the years since her illness, is that I now appreciate every second I have with her, and catch myself before I complain about the mundane.

    The Sea Of Trees touches on this. I connected with the imagery and the emotions throughout the film. I can't for the life of me understand why this received such strong backlash. For me, it's a masterpiece.

  • ★★★½ review by Josh Rosenthal on Letterboxd

    everything is transcendent: people that get lost get found, and people that hurt will eventually heal.

    surprisingly a soothing and very calming movie. the actual sea of trees in this movie is portrayed with such beauty, which was what was missing from this year's The Forest. it's slightly melodramatic and generic at times, but maybe that's just the kind of movie I was looking for. not the best acting from McConaughey, but the overall direction of the movie is what makes it worth it. I know that a lot of people will probably hate this movie, but I found it to be pretty astounding. give it an open-minded shot and see what you think.

  • ★★★½ review by Travis Lytle on Letterboxd

    A film that is as much about the transcendent nature of God than it is its superficial logline, Gus Van Sant's "The Sea of Trees" is an elegant piece of work pocked by its insistence to deliver high drama. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, and Naomi Watts, Van Sant's film blends small-scale production with large-scale emotional and physical landscapes.

    Revolving around McConaughey's Arthur Brennan, "The Sea of Trees" finds the man at his end after experiencing losses that would undo any human being. His story, and that of those around him, is told in nonlinear torrents that reveal motivation and purpose. The narrative builds slowly and follows Brennan as he makes a conscious decision to bring an end to his life. The story, however, finds its strength is what happens after that decision.

    The narrative's drama is loud, but Van Sant creates something that is both evocative and spiritual. Editing, shot selection, and performances build something whose heart is delicate despite the work's outward noise. Locations are lovely, characters are well-drawn, and, although the film's superficial plot points smack of maudlin forced tragedies, Van Sant is able to present a meditation on grief, love, and discovery that finds its truth in something outside a physical realm.

    "The Sea of Trees" may be too sodden for some, but the collective experience of the film is one that is uplifting and, even, inspiring. Van Sant may not be able to fully balance his message with the work's dramatic beats, but he is able to fashion something heartfelt and remarkably fulfilling.

  • ★★★½ review by TajLV on Letterboxd

    "God is more our creation than we are his." ~ Arthur Brennan

    Having lived there for two dozen years, I'm always eager to see new films that use Japan as a location, especially when they are made by one of my favorite directors and feature an Academy Award winner and two Oscar nominees. Here, filmmaker Gus Van Sant takes us to the Aokigahara "Suicide Forest" in the shadow of Mt. Fuji, the second most popular place in the world to take one's life after San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Many Japanese have described it as "the perfect place to die."

    Matthew McConaughey plays American adjunct professor Arthur Brennen, who has come to the legendary woods with a bottle of pills and a bottle of water, ready to take leave of this life. We only learn of his background though flashbacks, which focus on his wife Joan (Naomi Watts), a real estate agent who has supported him for years as he has struggled in his $20,000/yr. position to get published and gain tenure. We can see that their relationship is strained, but it's unclear why that would make her husband feel suicidal.

    Deep in the forest, as Arthur begins taking the pills one by one, a disheveled Japanese businessman named Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe) happens upon him. The man is injured and nearly delirious, but he speaks English and Arthur learns that he is trying to find his way out of the "sea of trees," having come there because he didn't want to live, but now wanting to find the trail because he doesn't want to die.

    Nakamura explains that he worked for a large company and was demoted because of a mistake he made. In his shame, he believed he had lost his place in the world and could no longer support his family. It's been two days since he stranded himself in the forest, which he calls "purgatory," haunted by spirits of the dead. Arthur puts aside his own troubles to try and help Nakamura find the trail back, but it's not that easy.

    Knowing Van Sant, I had to assume this was about something more than two depressed men lost in mysterious woods. An allegory perhaps? A build up for a cross-cultural revelation? There is some discussion of God, which Arthur as a man of science has no faith in. But there's also a flashback to confrontation between Arthur and Joan, in which we learn he was unfaithful to her three years earlier. Still, there are lots of missing pieces to this point, just shy of half way in.

    When Arthur falls off a stony ledge in the woods and hurts himself, the roles of the lost two men are reversed and it becomes a survival film. They have to scavenge clothes off dead bodies when theirs become ruined. We also learn that Joan developed a brain tumor and Arthur lost his interest in teaching. Still, why so suicidal? And why here in Japan?

    Of course, there's a reason. And it is revealed to Nakamura at a campfire late one night, and through a flashback, but maybe too late. As I suspected, there's a bit more going on here than a "lost in the woods" tale. I just wish it could have been even more astounding; seemed like Van Sant stepped off the gas a bit. But the film still got him nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and it is certainly a srtong addition to his filmography in my book.

  • ★★★½ review by Arthur Tuoto on Letterboxd

    O primeiro filme de Gus Van Sant sobre envelhecimento? "The Sea of Trees" concilia muito bem uma certa tendência edificante malickiana (um "baixo humanismo" existencialista) com essa abordagem mais francamente dramática. Existe uma frontalidade novelesca aqui que vai de Kiyoshi Kurosawa a Nicholas Sparks em poucos movimentos.

    Gosto como ele recusa qualquer gimmick nesse caminho e está afim de, basicamente, fazer um filme sobre superação com tudo o que tem direito. O roteiro flerta com algumas facilidades dramáticas duvidosas (o twist sobrenatural em si), mas acho que o filme nunca se encerra nisso. Ou pelo menos não faz disso o seu principal atrativo. Até porque é, acima de tudo, um filme sobre encenação. E nesse sentido ele remete um pouco ao "Journey to the Shore", essa recusa por uma ação implícita, esse gosto pelo concreto. É um filme que assume toda a sua intenção solene e vai até o fim com isso.

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