The Descendants (2011)

Film #20: The Descendants (2011)

George Clooney starred in two films last year: The Ides of March and The Descendants. While the former has a special place in my heart since it was filmed in Ann Arbor while I was at school there, the latter received far more critical attention. In director Alexander Payne’s film, Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Honolulu who is the sole trustee of a large plot of land on the island of Kaua’i. He and his huge network of cousins are on the verge of selling the land to a native Hawaiian for development, but his life becomes complicated when his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has a boating accident that puts her in a coma. All of a sudden, “the back-up parent”, as he calls himself, is in charge of their two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley). As if things weren’t complicated enough, Alex tells Matt that Elizabeth had been cheating on him.

The Descendants is a simple film about complicated emotions. Many of us will, at some point in our lives, confront a situation that seems unprecedented in how much it tries and challenges us. Matt King has to deal with three of these situations simultaneously. At first he hopes his wife will have a speedy recovery so that he can get back to life as usual, but these hopes are dashed when her condition deteriorates. Her living will stipulates that she’s to be taken off life support; her death becomes inevitable. At first, it seems like Matt is going to have to deal with all of these problems by himself – Scottie is too young for him to relate to, so he chooses not to share the news with her; Alex is rebellious and recalcitrant. After he tells Alex about her mother’s fate, however, she becomes a powerful ally for her father, and the relationship between the two of them is one of the best parts of this film. Shailene Woodley is an amazing young actress. Both Matt and Alex have to deal with a ton of conflicting emotions: Anger at Elizabeth for her infidelity, remorse at her comatose state, fear and confusion at the prospect of life without her. The camera spends a lot of time sitting and observing these characters as they deal with these emotions, coping with problems that most of us could never begin to imagine going through. Clooney, one of my favorite actors, is as potent an onscreen force as ever. Woodley holds her own alongside him. The underwater shot of her screaming in frustration after Matt tells her that Elizabeth is slated to die is one of the film’s most memorable moments, and perfectly captures the muted anguish that these characters are going through.

Underwater photographer Don King was brought in for this memorable shot

The film also deals extensively with morality. Elizabeth’s infidelity is indeed an immoral act, but it’s difficult to get angry at a morally blameworthy person when they’re on their deathbed. On one end of the spectrum, you want to be respectful to someone as they pass from this world – after all, nobody’s perfect, so do you really want to let someone’s moral transgressions tarnish your reminiscing of them during their final hours? On the other end, death cannot cause indiscriminate absolution – there are people whose deeds are so heinous that forgiveness does not come easily, not even with their death. We all have different opinions as to where the line on that spectrum is drawn, and it’s likely a line that shifts with every case we encounter. The characters in The Descendants try to deal with this ethical dilemma as well as many others, all coming to their own conclusions.

For instance, with Elizabeth in a coma, how important is it for her friends to keep her infidelity hidden from Matt (if it’s even moral to do so in the first place)? Elizabeth’s friend Kai (Mary Birdsong) thinks that it’s just as important to keep the dirty secret from Matt, a decision that causes him to break the news of Elizabeth’s fate to her in a harsh, deriding outlash. Kai’s husband Mark (Rob Huebel), on the other hand, feels for Matt, eventually giving him the name of the man who was having the affair with Elizabeth: Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard).

There are no simple emotions in Matt King's situation

Matt makes it his mission to seek out Brian. He says it’s so he can inform Brian of Elizabeth’s condition, in case he wants to pay his last respects, but it’s clear that the mission is more of a masochistic pursuit of the truth. He doesn’t need to go find Brian Speer, but he does anyway. Maybe it’s to see the type of man with which his wife chose to break their sacred vows. Maybe it’s to find some sort of closure for this impossibly-complicated situation. And maybe it’s just to beat some ass. In any case, he’s joined by both of his daughters and Alex’s braindead friend Sid (Nick Krause), whose inclusion is thankfully revealed to be more relevant than random.

Matt eventually tracks down Brian, who happens to be staying in a vacation home owned by Matt’s cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges, who is most obviously Jeff Bridges’ brother). Matt meets Brian’s family – his wife Julie (Judy Greer) and their two kids – and then discreetly tells him the situation. Interestingly, despite his earlier frustration at Elizabeth’s friends for not informing him of her infidelity, he chooses not to tell Julie of Brian’s transgressions. It’s probably because he sees such revelation, as coming from him, as an act of vengeance that he doesn’t want to descend to. Instead he chooses to strike back in a much more immature and ineffective way, by planting one on Julie’s lips as he ends his visit. It’s left to Sid to bring up the fact that Julie deserves to know. This moral dilemma solves itself eventually; Brian tells Julie the truth offscreen, and she reacts by coming to the hospital to forgive Elizabeth for ruining her family. The apology is, as all things are in The Descendants, confused and messy, as it breaks down into angry frustration.

The King family: Alex, Matt, and Scottie

We want life to be simple. In situations where a wrong is done, we want to have a clear good guy and bad guy. Someone to cheer for and someone to blame. But rarely are things so cut-and-dry. The Descendants takes a complicated situation and shows us the story of a simple, honest man trying to deal with it. The tough decisions he faces pervade every scene, down to when his father-in-law chides him for not being more supportive of his “faithful” daughter. Matt holds his tongue and accepts the criticism, not standing up for himself and all he’s done, but luckily, he doesn’t need to – Sid and Alex are there to have his back, showing that with strong familial support, we can all make it through even our most trying times. And despite his rudeness, Elizabeth’s father (Robert Forster) is still shown in a sympathetic light – because no matter how much of a prick a guy might be, nobody deserves the pain of watching their daughter die before their eyes.

The Descendants is a rare film, one that deals with morality but isn’t the least bit pretentious about it. Instead, its philosophical and ethical considerations are dealt with casually and practically. It is a truly beautiful film that shows a man and his family dealing with the most difficult of situations. And amidst all its somberness, it also manages to be funny, reflecting the fact that life is oftentimes humorous and heartbreaking all at once.

Final rating: 9/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • Alexander Payne co-wrote the script with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Rash is, at this point, best known for playing Dean Pelton on Community, which is one of my favorite shows of all time. The three of them won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay last Sunday, and I couldn’t be happier for them.
  • Anyone else notice that Judy Greer played a character named Julie Speer? I found that kind of funny. Also, it’s great to see her in a dramatic role after knowing her only through Arrested Development and her voicework on Archer. She did a really good job.
  • If Shailene Woodley doesn’t end up with an Oscar nomination sometime in the next decade, you can color me surprised. Probably my favorite member of this all-around wonderful cast. And that’s saying something, cause I loves the Clooney.
  • Damn, Hawaii is beautiful. Matt King might argue that life there is just as real as life anywhere else, but having the ocean everywhere around you and being able to walk into your friends’ back doors to go talk with them are luxuries that I certainly don’t have right now.
  • I never caught the Scooby Doo films, so I haven’t seen Matthew Lillard since SLC Punk! and Scream. His age is catching up with him, but it’s nice to see that he’s not stuck playing the goofball.

Oh, hey, false alarm with Midnight in Paris. THIS is actually my 100th review. So, uh. Hurrah?


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