Film review: The Sea of Trees


Directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Chris Sparling, The Sea of Trees explores the self by portraying an individual’s experience with mental illness. Engulfed by a wave of overwhelming emotion and struggling to survive after the loss of his wife Joan (Naomi Watts), Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) loses himself in a Japanese forest, Aokigahara forest, a place known for its high rates of suicide.

The story highlights the crippling effects of depression through cliched representations such as journeying out of the dark forrest environment, the use of weather conditions to represent emotional states, a shallowed depth of field symbolic of one’s inability to focus when struggling mentally, and dialogue between two differing characters, one representative of the rational and the other emotional. There is no doubt the difficulty of portraying mental illness in film and cliches, although overdone, tend to be used by filmmakers to point out the struggles of a character in the hope that the audience relates.

Van Sant’s decision to focus on McConaughey’s character Arthur is perhaps the film’s downfall as the external representation of mental illness in film relies dominantly on characters that are somewhat relatable. Despite my best efforts, I found it hard to relate to Arthur (McConaughey) not because he was a middle-aged American male of European descent, but because his actions portrayed in the forest and in flashbacks seemed to portray him as a hero when he clearly seemed to have problems of his own. The way Arthur treats his wife Joan (Watts) and the man he meets in the forest Takumi Nakamura (Ken Watanabe) at the start of the film changes as he develops in a journey of self discovery, maturing from a once selfish male to a man with the burden of guilt lifted off his shoulder after overcoming his own struggles at the expensive of hurting those around him.

Sadly, although I had hoped for so much more, The Sea of Trees did not deliver to the standard of which such a sensitive subject matter should be held. Most of the time the script felt overly dramatic as if an overworked lump of dough kneaded to the point that all that was left was an inability to rise leaving oneself feeling deflated.

Perhaps it was the longwinded plot and constant attempt to enforce a specific interpretation of the film itself through cliched representations of being depressed, being lost in a forest as a visual metaphor of mental illness and ‘having to find a way out.’ In my mind, The Sea of Trees is a film which could have been so poetic and beautifully done but instead leaves one feeling empty and lost for words.

The Sea of Trees is out now on DVD & Digital.



Review by Addy Fong.