Is Gus Van Sant Heading Toward Creative Suicide?

In 'The Sea of Trees,' Gus Van Sant seems caught between the two main poles of his body of work, and the result is peculiar.

Uri Klein
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Uri Klein

The work of American director Gus Van Sant has hitherto tended either toward the experimental or the cinematic mainstream. The experimental side peaked with films like “My Own Private Idaho,” “Gerry,” “Elephant,” “Last Days” and “Paranoid Park.” The experiments included Van Sant’s interesting but failed remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” – in color, with a new cast and several added scenes. Among the notable mainstream Van Sant films are “Good Will Hunting,” “Milk,” and “Promised Land.”

No other director’s work comprises such a clear polarity, and at this stage, Van Sant may have fallen into the trap that such a polarity poses. This is very much the case in his latest film, based on Chris Sparling’s creaky screenplay. The film weaves back and forth between the two poles and ends up collapsing in between. Van Sant’s work, in both its mainstream and experimental incarnations, while often impressive, has never struck me as that serious, and “The Sea of Trees” only highlights the director’s shortcomings while obscuring his virtues.

The hero of the film is Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey), a high school teacher from Massachusetts who buys a one-way ticket to Japan. There he leaves his car at the airport with the keys in the ignition and, carrying nothing with him, quickly makes his way to Aokigahara Forest near Mt. Fuji, a place also known as the Suicide Forest, where for centuries people have come to do away with themselves. Although the moviewas actually filmed in forested areas of Massachusetts, the site is so effectively filmed by Kasper Tuxen that it becomes the real star of the film. But this is not enough to overcome the contrived and banal plot.

Arthur has gone to the forest to commit suicide, and a series of flashbacks depicting his relationship with his alcoholic wife, Joan (Naomi Watts), who died of cancer, are meant to make us understand his decision, but they are less than convincing. Arthur believes that he is alone in the forest. Despite the video cameras aimed at deterring those who come here from carrying out their suicidal plans, and the signs that seek to persuade them that life is worth living, the skeletons that abound in the woods show just how ineffective these deterrent measures are. But Arthur is not alone. Before long, he is joined by a Japanese man named Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe), who is injured after several failed suicide attempts of his own.

The movie follows the relationship that develops between the two men (luckily for Arthur, Takumi speaks perfect English). We learn too much about Arthur and too little about Takumi; all we are told is that he wants to kill himself because of business losses. If there is one thing these two suicidal fellows have in common, it’s a loss of dignity – Takumi due to his financial troubles and Arthur for internalizing his wife’s scorn for his career as a “mere” high-school teacher. But the treatment of this subject is very trite and formulaic. When we are not being treated to flashbacks that paint a superficial portrait of an unhappy marriage, we’re listening to Arthur jabber on and on throughout the film, while Takumi stays mostly silent. Arthur’s self-pitying monologues steadily get more treacly and annoying. His ongoing attempts to say something meaningful about the hardships of human existence amount to so much blather. If he really did bug his wife constantly this way during their marriage, her cruel attitude toward him becomes quite understandable.

Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe in 'The Sea of Trees.'Credit: Courtesy

Creative crisis

The film being in urgent need of some physical drama, a massive flood hits the forest. And rather than have the men take advantage of nature’s assistance to make good on their suicide plans, Van Sant’s movie turns into an adventure film, spending long minutes depicting the pair’s attempts to survive the water’s onslaught. The transformation that Arthur and Takumi undergo is totally inexplicable, and not in the least convincing.

What exactly was Van Sant trying to do in this movie? The director seems to be going through some kind of “spiritual” stage, with a macabre side, and to have a fixation on the Orient, particularly Japan. In his unsuccessful 2011 film “Restless,” which wasn’t distributed in Israel, a young man with a fondness for funerals and a young cancer-stricken woman meet the ghost of a World War II kamikaze pilot. And while signs of this have appeared in some of his earlier work, never have they been handled so clumsily as in the present movie. Gus Van Sant is clearly in the midst of a creative crisis on both ends of the spectrum that have typified his work, which used to be much more intriguing. Does his interest in failure and death signal some acknowledgement of this crisis? Is he himself on the way to creative suicide? Only this can be said for certain: The interest that once greeted every new Gus Van Sant film has been evaporating for some years now. And this latest movie, which can aptly be termed pathetic, only strengthens that feeling.

The Sea of Trees Directed by Gus Van Sant; written by Chris Sparling; with Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts