In one of his recent film articles for the Baptist Press, Phil Boatwright bemoaned the overwhelming number of curse words in The Grey. He counted something like 200 of them. One wonders how he managed to keep track of all those F-words while adequately paying attention to everything else in the film. He ultimately argued that it is a blasphemous, hopeless mess (I saw the film and strongly disagree). By his criteria, I doubt he enjoyed The Descendants all that much. Like The Grey, I found it to be a deeply spiritual film in its own right but much, much better in nearly every way.
In The Descendants, Matt King (George Clooney) is a successful lawyer who is also the executor of a trust that governs a significantly large portion of virgin land on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The trust is soon to expire and will force him and his cousins to sell, a deal potentially worth upwards of a half a billion dollars. Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), has been involved in a speed boat accident, which puts her in a coma from which she will not recover. When Matt brings his eldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) home to break the news to her, she drops an equally devastating bomb on him. Elizabeth was cheating on Matt with a local realtor, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). Matt, along with Alexandra, his youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), and Alexandra’s friend Sid (Nick Krause), set out to find and confront Brian as well as making arrangement to say goodbye to, and allow friends and family to say goodbye to, Elizabeth.
The Descendants rings the truest of any drama that I saw last year and of any film nominated for Best Picture. Its strength is in the script (Alexander Payne, Jim Rash, and Nat Faxon) and direction (Payne), neither of which ever miss a step. Hawaii provides a beautiful backdrop to the tragic (and sometime humorous) events. The actors, lead by Best Actor nominee Clooney, along with Woodley, Miller, and Krause, are nearly perfect in their dysfunctional roles. On the other hand, that Clooney’s not much of a crier is occasionally distracting when there are several scenes that require him to do so. The lead performances are helped along by the fantastic dialogue with which they have to work. The kids aren’t burdened with uncharacteristically formal dialogue, and Clooney, as a grieving and victimized husband, is not forced to fight or yell at his wife’s lover or to have sex on the side in revenge.
As I mentioned earlier, The Descendants is an eminently spiritual film. Its themes of death, loss, grief, forgiveness, and reconciliation are heart- and gut-wrenching. Viewers like Boatwright will no doubt be gravely offended by all the coarse language and children flipping off their parents and will unfortunately miss what such language and actions signify, namely aching souls crying out for peace and healing. Of course, other viewers will, perhaps rightly, lament the absence of a positive, specifically religious response to all this pain, say in the form of a comforting minister or chaplain. However, the characters do find healing and reconciliation, but they find it not apart from the mess in which they struggle but actually, and quite surprisingly, within it. The beauty of the film is in the way in which the reconciliation between Matt and his daughters happens organically and not miraculously and in the ways in which Matt makes himself vulnerable to those who have wronged and wrong him, particularly Brian and Elizabeth’s father, Scott (Robert Forster). He makes space for Brian to visit Elizabeth’s bedside and mourn her impending death. When Scott blames Matt for Elizabeth’s coma and asserts that Elizabeth was always faithful to him, Matt holds his tongue.
The grief of Elizabeth’s coma and impending death impact each character, especially those closest to her, in a variety of ways. Learning that she cheated on him only complicates Matt’s grief, and his decision to interact with both Brian and her father honors, in some way, her memory. Both Alexandra and Scottie lash out in anger and frustration, no doubt at their father’s initial distance, their mother’s situation, and their own incapability of coping with this tragedy.
I’m sure there’s a parallel to be drawn between the land that Matt and his cousins have inherited and now must decide whether or not to sell and the loss of Matt’s wife. I’m open to suggestions. Initially, I thought of the tension between the willingness or ability to let go of what is gifted to us–be it a companion or an inheritance of land/money–and the desire to hold on to it. There are clear cultural and political implications of the privileged situation in which Matt and his cousins find themselves, but the film only pays lip service to them.
The Descendants is a tough emotional ride, but one that is well worth the effort and energy. Amid all the messiness of the lives we can see not only truths about pain and loss, but truths about love and (re)connection as well. Go see it if it’s still lingering in a theater near you.
The Descendants (115 mins.) is rated R for language including some sexual references and is currently in theaters.