Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A24 A-to-Z: #40. "The Sea of Trees" (2016)

Scene from The Sea of Trees
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

The Sea of Trees
Released: August 26, 2016 
Release Number: 40
Directed By: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, Ken Watanabe
Plot: The Sea of Trees is a movie starring Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, and Ken Watanabe. A suicidal American befriends a Japanese man lost in a forest near Mt. Fuji and the two search for a way out.

With the summer of 2016 almost over, A24 decided to go out with a note far stranger than the farting corpse of Swiss Army Man, or the relationship politics of The Lobster. It decided to go out with director Gus Van Sant's The Sea of Trees, which was nowhere near the same level of acclaim going into its release. In fact, it was more of a notorious film the likes of which contradicted the studio's eye for cutting edge indies that provoked. Sure, it had McConaughey in a post-Oscar winning role along with an equally prestigious supporting cast (and Van Sant himself a former winner at Cannes). So, what exactly was it about the film that made it stick out as a sore thumb, creating arguably the studio's least successful film of its first four years both financially and critically? Well, it's all just coincidence when it comes right down to it.

There was always an allure for Aokigahara in Japan, better known as "The Suicide Forest." The place earned the name due to reports that there were on average three suicides per week held there. Many would even claim that it was haunted with ghosts roaming around. Whatever the case may be, it's one of those stories that appealed to writer Chris Sparling, who worked on the screenplay that would become The Sea of Trees. In spite of having a similar name to various books, it's not actually adapted from any one source material. Van Sant would come to see the script and want to work on the project. When McConaughey was approached, he claimed that what drew him to the script that it was like a series of haikus written one after another. There was a power to the mystery at the center that made him want to be part of the project. The other actors joined later.

The goal was to shoot the film, if possible, in The Suicide Forest. It would give them an authenticity. For back-up, they would consider places in the Northeast United States. As a result, they split filming between the states in Massachusetts and Mt. Fuji in Japan.  Director of Photography Kasper Tuxen would take McConaughey and co-star Ken Watanabe's stand-ins onto the locations to shoot a rough cut of the film. When they finished, the footage was shown to Van Sant, who got a good idea of how to shoot the film. There weren't exactly any exciting stories of how the film was shot, so the filming was pretty straightforward. Nobody became seduced by the terrible power of The Suicide Forest, which is a rather thankful achievement.

However, it would hit another snag upon its premiere at Cannes in 2015. For starters, the film would be booed and the following Q&A started without normal applause of the actors taking the stage. The studios that had bought the film before Cannes, Roadside and Lionsgate, would back out of their deal sometime after this occurrence. To make matters worse, the film received the lowest rating for any competing film in over 11 years. McConaughey would give the rare moment of acceptance where he said that it was fine for people to boo the film. It had an unenviable notoriety immediately, yet it didn't stop A24 from snatching the film up. It wasn't because they believed that the film was misunderstood, but that it would fit their business model perfectly. The film would have a theatrical release on the same day that it would be released through video on demand. There was a strategy that believed that the film, budgeted at $25 million, would make back a profit due to curiosity for the V.O.D. audiences. While it's unsure if that's true, the film did earn $825,577 theatrically, which is the largest difference of profit-to-budget ratio in the studio's history.

The film would be released in August of 2016, and the backlash didn't change in that time. Despite having McConaughey, still riding his Oscar-winning role and the "McConaissance" of his career, the film received some of the actors' worst reviews of recent years. On critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, it received an abysmal 11%, which is among the studio's lowest ratings for any film. Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert . com captured the overwhelming negative opinion by stating that "The Sea of Trees uses depression, cancer and suicide as manipulative devices to tug at heartstrings instead of offering insight into the human condition."John Heartl of The Seattle Times would also note of the acting that "No wonder Watts rules the movie. She's playing the only remotely sympathetic character; the men seem consumed by grief and guilt and platitudes." The few that disagreed shared similar thoughts to Gary Goldstein of The Los Angeles Times, who counterattacked with "A stronger movie experience than one might expect. It's anchored by a fine, understated performance by Matthew McConaughey and a deeply felt, if at times melodramatic, story that proves strangely immersive." Whatever the case may be, it was one of the most noticeable duds in A24's otherwise shining 2016.

The Sea of Trees was almost always doomed to be a misfire. While the production itself wasn't disastrous, there was something about the atmosphere around the film that made it a likely failure. Not even A24's diligent brand and ways of catapulting abstract stories to audiences who didn't know they wanted it. The film wasn't only a low point for the studio, but for McConaughey and Van Sant, whose careers were studded with enough recent success to suggest better. Whatever the case may be, it's a film that faded into obscurity and left behind very little of a reputation, but what it did was negative. The same couldn't be said for the next film, which took a look at lower-class Americans touring America in a three hour epic that brought back an acclaimed female director and started the Fall season on a very, very high note.

Up Next: American Honey (2016)

No comments:

Post a Comment