‘The Sea of Trees’ and ‘The Light Between Oceans’ are two insanely depressing films with a number of similarities. Some of these similarities are good, like the beautiful scores that accompany them (Alexandre Desplat’s for ‘Ocean’s’ is particularly beautiful). Some are neutral, like the ponderous and reflective nature of the pieces. And some are just bad, like some of the terrible decisions our protagonists make and characters that are challenging to sympathize with.
‘The Sea of Trees’ is a particularly miserable slog from beginning to end. In the story, Matthew McConaughey’s character (Arthur) is going to a famous suicide forest in Japan to fall down in the woods and pick flowers (or die…..maybe). It is here that he meets another suicidal guy named Takumi (Ken Watanabe) and they decide together that they don’t want to die. Then, the two get lost in the forest, fall down a lot, and reflect on life. Arthur’s reflections are seen in flash back.
The flashbacks are what truly make the film and sadly, they are ridiculously cliche’ in their degrading level of obvious misery. Arthur fight with his wife Joan (Naomi Watts) about money, jobs, and alcoholism. Then she gets sick. And more misery ensues that I won’t reveal, but what matters is it’s all abundantly obvious and might evoke more eye rolling than tears. I try to give all characters the benefit of the doubt, yet these were so by the numbers that I had a hard time seeing them as people.
It’s not all bad. There are some decent scenes sprinkled throughout. The message of figuring a way to move on is an important one. The performances are all uniformly good. And there are occasionally some good shots here and there. However, it is not enough to make up for the mopey and muddled narrative that left me struggling to stay awake through its 110 minute running time. Someone may enjoy it, but I couldn’t wait for it to end.
‘The Light Between Oceans’ is equally mopey, but it has a lot more to keep the audiences interest. For starters, it is absolutely beautiful to look at from beginning to end. It might be the most beautifully shot movie so far this year. It has a beautiful score. It flows beautifully. Just about everything in the movie is beautiful.
Then there are the fantastic performances by Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander. Their performances are the two best I have seen so far this year. I especially enjoyed Fassbender’s subtle depth and the way he constantly seems to be contemplating what he must do to make things right. You can read so much in his eyes that it makes silence feel like a sea of dialogue.
In ‘Oceans’, we follow two characters named Tom and Isabel. Half of the movie is devoted to the nature of their human story, the way they fall in love, and their quest for a child through two miscarriages. We also get a glimpse at what life is like on an island and how it might be to run a lighthouse. This is all interesting and romantic. But then the movie brings its twist.
A boat washes up on shore. Inside are a dead man and a screaming baby. The dilemma of what to do in this situation and what happens after that decision is at the heart of this stories thought provoking nature. Many will see these characters as cruel. Some might feel they would do the same thing. That’s the point. The movie is meant to make you think.
Now, this movie has problems that many audiences will take issue with. The type of melodrama that it is will draw comparisons to soap opera. Some audiences will be turned off by the characters actions. Some may find it too long and riddled with too many montages instead of scenes. Some may even find the whole thing a stretch of believability. I toyed with all these things. Yet, I haven’t stopped thinking about the movie for days. The decisions made and how they all take place breed too many lessons in my mind and leave too many questions about what’s right and wrong. Not to mention the way it deals with the notion of judgement.
Both these movies are examples of modern melodrama by extremely talented directors (Gus Van Zandt for ‘Trees’ and Derek Cianfrance for ‘Oceans’). Yet, their similarities in tone and misery equate to completely different experiences. One is a predictable bore that might make you role your eyes. The other might leave you questioning the characters decisions for days after. Neither are terrible or great. They lie just a step above and below. Which can be an uncomfortable spot when you are aiming for high melodrama, but that’s just the way the sap seeped down the tree this time.