Gus Van Sant’s career is one of the most unpredictable in contemporary Hollywood. He arrived from the Pacific Northwest just as “independent movie” became an unlikely genre of its own. Along with Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, he was at the forefront of a sort of return-to-roots movement that rejected the formula and excess that characterized the Reagan era. Van Sant’s movies were every bit as formally innovative as Soderbergh’s and Tarantino’s, but his approach wasn’t as clinical as the former’s or as dumb as the latter. He first hit big in 1989 with Drugstore Cowboy, a darkly gentle paean to junkie bandits set in a post-Altamont Portland. But 1991’s My Own Private Idaho, a brazen mash-up of Midnight Cowboy and Shakespeare’s Henriad with River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as homeless male prostitutes, solidified Van Sant’s position as the indie movement’s gay ambassador to the mainstream. While the group included other gay voices—most notably Todd Haynes, whose debut was a straight-faced biopic of Karen Carpenter shot entirely with Barbie dolls—Van Sant favored big emotions even bigger stars. (Reeves had just played Ted “Theodore” Logan when Van Sant hired him to play Prince Hal.) He flirted with the fringe but never hid his mainstream ambition; he was as honest about his sentimentality as his homosexuality. Within a few years, he was directing crowd-pleasing goop like Good Will Hunting and forgotten goop like Finding Forrester, all while racking up Academy Award nominations.
But he never quite shed his taste for the offbeat. To Die For is a caustically broad farce that proved Nicole Kidman was one of our best actors. He mounted a misguided, big-budget art installation with a shot-for-shot redo of Psycho. And his minimalistic, Béla Tarr-influenced Gerry kicked off an artistic resurgence that continued through Elephant and Last Days—roman à clef retellings of, respectively, the Columbine shooting and Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
Those last three movies (dubbed his “Death Trilogy”) were among the best of their decade—experiments in anti-formalism that suggested this was a filmmaker at his best with his maudlin impulses kept in check. But with Milk, Van Sant grafted the elliptical form of the Death Trilogy onto an old-fashioned biopic and created an unabashedly mawkish masterpiece.
Van Sant has seemed a little lost of late, but The Sea of Trees suggests a return to form. Its premise explicitly recalls everything from Gerry to Last Days to My Own Private Idaho: a morose American named Arthur buys a one-way ticket to Aokigahara, a forest in the shadow of Mount Fuji known for its triple-digit annual suicide rate. After he encounters Takumi, a Japanese businessman who’s botched his own attempt, the pair struggles to find their way back to civilization. Flashbacks reveal the events that brought Arthur to Aokigahara.
And in the early going, The Sea of Trees shows promise. Aokigahara—littered with abandoned cars, aggressively polite signage (“Hold on a second. There are many things that are fun. Please think again, so that you can make your life a happy one.”), and corpses in various stages of decay—is a gorgeously spooky landscape. And a bespectacled and frowsy Matthew McConaughey—Van Sant loves deglamorizing stars—brings his unusual cadence and knack for unexpected line readings to Arthur.
But (and I almost mean this as a compliment) The Sea of Trees is a trainwreck. It makes no dramatic sense and its twists are bananas. The movie hysterically wants to conceal Arthur’s motivation for arriving at Aokigahara, hiding wildly contradictory clues in its time jumps; the surprise reveal, which would be mean-spirited if it weren’t so bonkers, is a hoot.
Still, getting to the juicy hokum is a trudge, and Van Sant never comes close to earning the kind of transcendentally hypnotic slog that infused Gerry. (That movie’s secret weapon was its sense of humor, which is conspicuously absent here.) But The Sea of Trees doesn’t earn its melodrama either; it’s caught between Van Sant’s default modes—too monotonous for the mainstream, too junky for the arthouse.
At the same time, it’s never predictable. And if there’s one thing that unifies Van Sant’s career, it’s gentle caprice. The Sea of Trees may be bad, but it’s bafflingly bad—almost bad enough to be good.
The Sea of Trees. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Written by Chris Sparling. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, and Naomi Watts. Opens in Kansas City September 2, 2016.