Director Gus Van Sant’s latest film, The Sea of Trees, tells the story of Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey), a man intent on killing himself in Aokigahara, Japan’s famed “suicide forest.” When he finds a suitable boulder on which to swallow a bottle of pills, he sees Takumi (Ken Watanabe) wandering the forest, seemingly lost. When Arthur finds himself moved to save this mysterious man, his survival instinct kicks in to gear.
As the pair wends its way through the forest, trying to find help for Takumi’s slashed wrists, the story of Arthur’s strained marriage to Joan unfolds, revealing his deepest regrets. Sometimes The Sea of Trees is able to transmit the silent, ghostly beauty of Aokigahara, but the film’s unwillingness to engage with Japan as anything other than a cool setting is a real problem.
The film implicitly argues that being forced to survive can reawaken the will to live. At times, surprising action sequences drive home this compelling premise . McConaughey excels in action-hero mode, falling off rock faces and building fires against all odds. One doesn’t necessarily expect this degree of action from a director like Van Sant, but these scenes energize an otherwise fairly inert movie.
The Sea of Trees loses something crucial by focusing entirely on a Western man who has lost the will to live. When Arthur asks his Japanese counterpart why he came to die in the forest, Takumi answers that he was demoted at work. Arthur shoots him a surprised look that says, "Why would anyone want to kill themselves over work?" This is one of the few moments in the film when Takumi is developed as a character; unfortunately, it only serves to reduce him to a data point about Japan’s suicide epidemic.
The film fails to give Aokigahara any culturally specific texture, choosing to focus instead on Arthur’s suffering in America. His tragedy, related in great depth and detail, is presented as epic. The asymmetry in the degrees to which the two characters are allowed to be full people becomes increasingly grating as the film wears on. This asymmetry, in turn, reflects the degree to which Americans consider other cultures to be real.
The suicide forest seems to have recently become a source of fascination in the West. The Sea of Trees arrives on the heels of another American film about Aokigahara, The Forest, a horror flick that has been widely accused of whitewashing its setting. While these kinds of cultural erasures are common in the horror genre, it’s surprising that Van Sant, a director known for his smart and sensitive style, would be so blind to the cultural differences that render a true sense of place.