Sitting at the northwest base of Mount Fuji, Aokigahara is a location bred in heartbreak and supernatural Japanese mythology. With well over 50 suicides taking place there each year, this 14-sq.-mile patch of wood has become notorious for the wrong reasons, a go-to destination for lost and grieving souls looking to end their lives. Earlier in 2016, Aokigahara was the setting for the rather exploitative horror film "The Forest
," starring Natalie Dormer as a young woman terrorized by spirits while searching for her missing twin sister. Standing as an inadvertently fascinating counterpoint, the deeply poignant, lushly poetic "The Sea of Trees" treats this place with notably more esteem and empathy. In telling the story of a man in crisis unable to reconcile the tragic circumstances the universe has dealt him, director Gus Van Sant (2012's "Promised Land
") and writer Chris Sparling (2015's "The Atticus Institute
") have crafted a picture both sensitive and melancholic, emotionally raw yet ultimately inspiring.
American professor Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) has traveled to Japan with no intention of returning home. Entering into Aokigahara, he passes signs along the path urging travelers to think about their families and the effect their deaths will have on loved ones. When Arthur experiences a chance encounter with an injured Japanese man, Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), who is having second thoughts about killing himself, his attempt to help this stranger find his way out of the labyrinth of trees sends them both on a soul-searching journey of survival and unexpected enlightenment. Gradually, the details of Arthur's past and his troubled relationship with wife Joan (Naomi Watts) begin to inform his fateful present.
"The Sea of Trees" is a sumptuous, rewarding experience, the film's elegiac tempo luring one into both the mouth of its portentous forest and the heart of its aching protagonist. Vacillating between Arthur and Takumi's experiences as they battle the elements and emotionally thorny flashbacks to Arthur's former life with Joan, the narrative brings perceptive insight into two very different, yet singular, realities. Entirely free of all classic McConaughey-esque mannerisms, an affectingly reserved Matthew McConaughey (2014's "Interstellar
") all but disappears behind the bespectacled, largely internal eyes of Arthur. His marriage to Joan, glimpsed in stirringly authentic scenes scattered throughout, is a study in minimalistic complexity. Naomi Watts (2015's "While We're Young
") is close to astonishing as successful real estate agent Joan, a functioning alcoholic torn between her love for Arthur and the resentments she can no longer bottle inside. In just a handful of exquisitely adept moments, she and McConaughey are able to build a world of history, the sting of life's most bitter and unfair turns giving them perspective on what is, ultimately, most important.
In "The Sea of Trees," the wonder of the natural world and the fallibility of one's existence rustle like leaves in the wind. Subtle dips into magical realism do not hinder the material, but are treated with an unassuming touch contributing to the reverent mystique and human vulnerability at its core. Adding to the allure, Kasper Tuxen's (2014's "Hateship Loveship
") cinematography proves mysterious, rustic and graceful, while Mason Bates' score is exquisitely, patiently ethereal. Director Gus Van Sant, an innately introspective filmmaker, gives this subject matter the thoughtfulness and compassion it deserves. In Arthur and Joan, he paints a couple who feel real, all of their hang-ups and passive-aggressiveness inconsequential in the face of mortality and the intimate connections which bond them. "The Sea of Trees" is quietly mesmerizing and exceedingly wise, understanding there is profundity in every direction one gazes.