The Cannes Film Festival has been known to make or break films and The Sea of Trees became one of its biggest victims. Met with uproarious boos, it is the lowest-scoring Cannes entry in over a decade. Talk about harsh. The prestigious picture is now being dumped via VOD and platform release despite its name-worthy director and cast. This latest Gun Van Sant feature follows Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey), a withdrawn man looking to end his life in the notorious “Suicide Forest”. The journey becomes a trip of self-reflection, as Arthur pieces together the remains of his marriage.
The Sea of Trees has gotten bashed left and right since its premier, and for good reason. While the film has some merit, it’s a strange misfire that is disjointedly plotted and emotionally hackneyed from the start.
Being the fixture of every scene in the film, Matthew McConaughey has a tough task as the film’s lead. Here, his subdued approach is effective, with the audience feeling the emotional weight hanging over him throughout. The cast in general is capable, with Naomi Watts and Ken Wantanabe also being good despite not having a great deal to work with.
Unlike most indie movies that are crafted with a shoe-string budget, The Sea of Trees is an impressive production. Cinematographer Kasper Tuxen captures the foreboding nature of the Suicide Forest, with Arthur trekking the boundless forest dressed with decrypted remains. Tuxen does an especially strong job of capturing the character’s emotions through detailed shots of facial expressions.
While prestige can add to a movie, it can not mask the core fundamentals in making a narrative work. Gus Van Sant is a talented director, known for making some profoundly emotional material with Good Will Hunting, Elephant, and Milk. However, his approach to this material feels misguided.
Even with the material being very grim, Van Sant’s approach to the key dramatic beats feels cinematic in the worst way. The sweeping score matched with emotional swelling of the characters feels insincere throughout, with their maudlin nature juxtaposing oddly with the subdued characters. There is a lack of restraint and deftness to the direction.
That’s not to say the material he is working with is very good. Despite featuring a sound concept, Chris Sparling’s script descends into some terrible waters. The Sea of Trees tries to take a few daring twists, but these attempts at twists come off as so inauthentic and silly.
The use of the word pretentious has become a cliche in describing failed indie efforts, but the word fits the bill here. All of the dialogue has a preachy subtext, with the characters constantly wrestling with what life, consequence, and death means to them. These conversations lack any sort of realism or even compelling discussion.
The Sea of Trees is an emotionally inauthentic and narratively confounding mess that fails to ring a true moment despite the prestigious team behind it. Perhaps the film being buried via its VOD release is the best circumstance for all involved.