With films such as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant has excellent credentials as a festival favourite. Though later works, such as Promised Land and Restless share little with his earlier productions, there were high(ish) hopes for The Sea of Trees. Van Sant, McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts…what could go wrong? The answer: a lot.

McConaughey is Arthur, who drives to the airport and books a one-way ticket to Tokyo. He has no luggage and it is clear that this man has no intention of coming back. His glazed eyes and unshaven face signify a desperate man. But what has he done and what does he have to do in Japan? Well, he’s going there to kill himself.

Armed with a bottle of pills and a package addressed to his wife, Joan (Watts), he has googled the perfect place to commit suicide and this, apparently, is it. Halfway through his bottle of pills, he espies a man staggering through the forest. This is Takumi (Watanabe), who has slit his wrists but is now seeking the park exit. It transpires that this is not so easy to find and Arthur embarks on a journey that turns out to be both spiritual and painfully physical.


As Arthur and Takumi forge their bromance, we get flashbacks to Arthur and Joan’s past, their tempestuous marriage filled with resentment and recriminations, not helped by Joan’s alcoholism. She wants him to earn more as she’s sick of being the main breadwinner. He is a professor and finally happy with his $20,000p.a. job. To be fair to Arthur, they seem to be doing alright, living in a beautiful house and owning a not too shabby holiday house. I’m not sure how many forty-year-olds there are called Arthur and Joan in the US today, but it seems an odd choice of names, more 1950s than 2010s.

If only that were the only problem. The Sea of Trees plays like an extended Lost episode. The amazing forest, beautifully lit by cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, is full of dangerous precipices and magical flowers. Dead bodies are scattered all over the place and Arthur strips two of them to dress himself. Perhaps whilst wearing a dead man’s clothes, he realises that he needs to fight for his own life.

His initial instinct was to save Takumi, but as the journey progresses it is all about saving himself from his spiritual abyss (though he falls into a couple of real ones, too). Arthur’s a scientist: he likes facts. He has no truck with God, ‘he’s more our creation than we are his’, whereas Takumi is all about the afterlife and spirits guiding us and watching over us.

This quasi-religious claptrap is spread so thickly that the two excellent actors are smothered in it and there is no chance of them surviving this film unscathed. However, Van Sant is to blame. McConaughey puts in the kind of performance we have come to expect of him, Watts is fine, and poor Ken Watanabe has little to do other than spout spiritual rubbish.

The clumsy denouement is embarrassing and risible. This is no A Matter of Life and Death and we leave the cinema wishing Arthur had simply taken those pills and gone to the other side, saving us all from 110 minutes of dross.