I have not written many film reviews over the past year or so because, honestly, I have not been moved by the majority for the films I have watched during that timeframe. The Sea of Trees has changed all that!
A film's story is always the final arbiter for a successful film but acting, directing and production values must provide equal measure for that overall success to transcend. In the case of The Sea of Trees all of those contributing factors operate well, not necessarily perfectly, but well enough so as to not detract from the underlying story. The story bears the largest responsibility in The Sea of Trees.
It was not too long ago that the actual Japanese suicide forest, Aokigahara, was in the international news. At that time a number of people who were interviewed spoke of the forest and attributed mystical powers to the place as well as their limited understanding of the many complex lives that have ended there. This background provided a powerful leavening to the film's story.
There is a real place that provides the backdrop for the simple life-ending quests that drive the story. In the film, the lost man is seeking release. Instead he ultimately finds compassion and purpose that aids in his own sense of dealing with guilt of so much precious time having been wasted with his wife while wrestling with his own ego.
What is unique to the film's story is the element brought to life in the character of the wandering stranger. Watanabe is the perfect representative for the stranger and the spirit of the forest. There is a fragility portrayed that seems almost ethereal. Here, the film's production values leap to the center stage with so much pain and sorrow offset by a simple, beautiful, orchid flower that returns late in the story. Throughout, the director's eye provides the lense for the audience to share the moments of discovery and sad horror of the use to which the forest has been put by all who those who sought release from their personal purgatorial lives.
The whole of the story is moved along not so much by the characters attempting to find safety in the forest but more so by the flash backs used to identify why McConaughay's character finds himself at the entrance to the forest in the first place. The audience is provided with the rationale and the necessary back-story of his wife's personality and her diminishment as she becomes ill and eventually passes away. This leaves the audience with an insight that only good story telling can accomplish. Moreover, these accomplishments come with the sparseness that keeps the story moving along and does not collapse into cloying distractions.
When the forest orchid once again appears, as the replacement for the stranger, the audience can nod and share the main character's sense of peace.
All of this story is confined to four principals; McConaughy, his wife, the stranger and the forest itself. That, sparseness of characterization demonstrates how well the story and the director's interpretation of that story coincided.
At the same time, the forest carries the major burden of the story and it does not miss a beat with the haunting photography. Additionally, each torturous step by the characters means something and, if removed, would dimish the piece. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, the acting, directing and the production! A wonderful and meaningful movie.
This movie represents all of the potential of film to present a story without growing outside of its given channel and hence remaining a gem that will bring me back to relish the work again in the future.