The Sea of Trees [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (29th December 2016).
The Film

Adjunct physics professor Arthur Brennan (The Dallas Buyer's Club's Matthew McConaughey) boards a plane to Tokyo without baggage (luggage, that is) and no return ticket. Walking deep into the Aokigahara Forest (the titular "sea of trees" better known as "the suicide forest"), he finds a scenic view where he sits down to swallow some pills next to a package addressed to his wife Joan. His attempt at a quiet, peaceful suicide is interrupted by the cries of disheveled and injured man Takumi (Letters from Iwo Jima's Ken Watanabe) stumbling through the forest. Takumi tells Arthur that he wants to go home. Arthur points him in the direction of the trail leading back to the car park but he is seemingly unable to find it without help. When drowsy Arthur attempts to walk Takumi to the park exit, he too discovers that he can no longer find the trail. Takumi's seeming concern for Arthur's state of health annoys him and has Arthur pointedly asking what the man is doing there in the first place. Takumi reveals that he came to the forest to die but has changed his mind. As they try to follow the ribbons others have tied to the trees to find their way back, Takumi reveals that he was demoted at his job, made invisible to his co-workers and unable to support his wife and child. Appalled by Takumi's reasoning to adhere to some code of honor when he has people who love him, Arthur reflects on what brought him to the forest: the disintegration of his marriage to Joan (Mulholland Dr.'s Naomi Watts), marked by functioning alcoholism and his infidelity, by her frustration over working overtime to pay the mortgage while he plays faux-intellectual, and tragedy that comes just as they were finding their way back to one another. As night settles in, Arthur's rational mind goes up against Takumi's belief that the forest is keeping them there among the corpses (some fresh and others undiscovered for some time) and spirits in purgatory. As Arthur's resolve strengthens to get Takumi to safety and hospital care, the elements seem equally determined to sweep them off the trails. Is it some metaphysical test of their ability to move on from their personal tragedies or has the forest already taken them? Rightfully booed at its Cannes Film festival screening, The Sea of Trees finds director Gus Van Sant (Milk) and star McConaughey at their most maudlin, pretentious, and predictable. Van Sant and company insult the audience not so much with the fragmenting of Brennan's obvious backstory throughout the film as if the revelation will be shocking and heart-wrenching, but by severely underestimating the intelligence of their audience to possibly form any sort of interpretation of what is ultimately a thin story by resorting to flashbacks and echoey refrains of dialogue from earlier on to hammer theirs home. McConaughey might have gotten away with a film like this back during his Contact/A Time to Kill days when he was considered a lightweight (his Lincoln car commercials are more forgivable than this), while the effort feels even lazier on the part of Van Sant than his Psycho remake. Ironically, the Japanese half (Watanabe and a handful of peripheral characters) of the cast fare better due to film's treatment of their cliché "inscrutability" even as Brennan ridicules Takumi's "honorable" reasons for committing suicide. About the best thing that could be said about The Sea of Trees is that it's better than the same year's The Forest.


LionsGate's single-layer 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.40:1 widescreen encode at least highlights this bad film's best assets in its visuals and audio. The forest scenes lean towards the cooler end of the palette with sunlight that is more white than warm and blue-hued moonlight while the flashbacks look warmer and more naturalistic.


The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track provides a nice surround presence to the forest scenes that is enveloping and creepy while the flashback sequences are deliberately more restrained in their use of the surrounds. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also included (Japanese dialogue is subtitled on the print).


The sole extra is "The Sea of Trees: A Story of Beauty and Tragedy"(8:17) in which producer Ken Kao (Knight of Cups) accurately describes the film as "reductive" - albeit, when speaking favorably of its "inspirational message" - while Van Sant recalls being attracted to the puzzle structure of the film and its ambiguity of meaning (one wonders if he or the original screenplay is to blame for the explain-it-all ending).


About the best thing that could be said about The Sea of Trees is that it's better than the same year's The Forest.


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