A packed audience of film journalists booed loudly on Friday night at the end of Gus Van Sant‘s “Sea of Trees,” a meditative film starring Matthew McConaughey screening in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
The film stars McConaughey as a man determined to take his own life in the famed Aokigahara forest in the shadow of Japan’s Mount Fuji.
Audiences in Cannes are notoriously high strung, and their censure at the festival is not necessarily proof that a film is a dud. Indeed, one could argue that the pensive mood of Van Sant’s film is more commercial than many films being shown here, which is undoubtedly what Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions – which bought the movie as the festival opened – are hoping.
Nonetheless, the film certainly did not hit the mark with this audience. The film opens with Arthur (McConaughey) determinedly flying to Japan, headed to the titular Sea of Trees to take his own life in a forest known as a magnet for those intent on suicide. But he is interrupted when another man (Ken Watanabe), wanders into his view, bleeding and in pain after having a change of heart over his own suicide.
The film goes to flashbacks of McConaughey’s troubled marriage to Joan (Naomi Watts), who unhappily supports his untenured professorship while drinking wine in unhealthy amounts. She falls ill, and regret takes over Arthur’s world.
This is McConaughey’s first role that he chose after winning the Oscar for “Dallas Buyers Club” last year, and he gets to depict a man in an existential struggle with himself while battling nature for a survival he’s not sure he wants.
The film may appeal to many as an emotional meditation on what is important in life, and in many ways is a departure for the usually harder-edged Van Sant. Chris Sparling wrote the script on the heels of his Sundance movie “Buried,” after discovering online that some 100 people commit suicide in the Aokigahara forest every year.
The swooning orchestral score, the vast sweeping shots of sunlight through the trees create a poetic and spiritual tone that many will love. But McConaughey’s motives for suicide are never entirely convincing, and the arc of Watanabe’s character will undoubtedly meet criticism for serving as a mere foil to McConaughey’s spiritual journey.