Thursday, December 15, 2011

Movie Review: The Descendants - A Subtle Exploration of the Beauty of Grief

The Descendants, like the sweet breeze caressing the beautiful lush landscapes of Hawaii, lightly touches you, swaying your heart to an odd sense of calm about life, of finding a way to live in the eye of the storm, without a denial of the storm. I realize the oddity of saying this about a movie that deals mainly with death and infidelity, but the movie works off a strange truth of life, that often, despite the circumstances, you find peace at the height of expected pain. Somehow, when everything crumbles, when the ground beneath melts, a sense of purpose, or contentment, infuses your life. It’s strange and counter-intuitive, to a certain extent. We’ve come to expect something very different from tragedy, especially in our art. We expect something on the scale of Melancholia where our personal pain translates into the literal end of the world. Interestingly, though I would never categorize Melacholia and The Descendants together, they both partake of a recent obsession in certain movies.
I can’t particularly explain the recent obsession with the divergence between the world of nature and the world of humanity, but many movies explore the complex relationship between beauty, specifically natural beauty, and the idea of tragedy, or evil. (Perhaps this new need to investigate such an old question stems from the advent and access to new technology that allows filmmakers to capture and play with beauty in countless different ways...) Think of The Tree of Life, Melancholia, and now the Descendants. They all ask similar vexing, almost unanswerable questions: How can we find beauty in a world of death? Does natural beauty hold any answers to the existential questions of life? What does it mean to live in a world of beauty with so much pain. Melancholia enlightens us to the beauty of catastrophe while asking, what does it mean when we can find transcendent beauty in the apocalypse? Tree of Life, from a more religious viewpoint, asks the perennial question of God’s role in Nature, while the Descendants, a drastically different type of movie, raises the more subtle question of what can the calm and beauty of nature teach us as to how to cope with life.
Payne, the director and screenwriter, attempts to throw us off the scent of this question in the opening voice over narrative. Clooney, Matt King, a rich lawyer, who uses his money sparingly, tells us that he finds it ridiculous that his friends believe he lives in the paradise of hawaii when in truth, he lives, now, in the paradise of IVs, hospital beds, and the spectre of death. Yet, despite this assertion, Payne suffuses the movie with “gratuitous” shots of Hawaii’s landscape, green mountains, paradisaical beaches, and an idyllic blue ocean. He can’t help himself, it seems. Despite the impending death, Payne spends so much time introducing us, and allowing the viewers to get lost in the scenery, which takes on the tone of another character in the movie. Despite his assertion otherwise, King/Clooney, does live in paradise. For a quick vacation, they hop over to another one of Hawaii’s island, spend most of their times on beaches, without their shoes, that we can’t help but feel that somehow, nature affects the people of Hawaii in a certain manner.
The story itself, based off a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, follows a simple linear narrative. For the most part, I assume, we know the route and outcome of the story. The movie relies not on suspense, but on the characters internal growth and performances. Matt King, played by a perfect Clooney (I cant remember the last movie that uses a face to express so much of an inner turmoil. Clooney’s face, the face of an aging once sexiest man alive, finds new nuances in his wrinkles, his frowns, his small smiles and even in a small wince), finds his life torn asunder when his wife, due to a water-skiing accident, falls into a coma. Her will demands that she die, and the onus falls upon Clooney to tell all her family and friends about her impending death. All the while, Clooney, heir to a gorgeous tract of Hawaiian Land, must navigate his family and the sale of the land, while learning how to overcome his role as the “back-up parent.” The added twist, that, unexpectedly adds much of the humour, lies in the fact that Clooney’s dying wife has been cheating on him with a realtor who stands to benefit off the sale of the land. (Played, by a shockingly enjoyable Matthew Lillard. Who knew?)
There’s a delightful quasi-insouciance that permeates the whole movie. Each scene contains the potential to devastate, to fall into the maudlin or melodramatic, but Payne, the actors, the writers, really everyone involved, evinces such a rare, and perhaps healthy, understanding of the minuteness of their lives, their issues, and their problems. Somehow, in this movie, it’s the outbursts of pain that strike the viewer as strange, almost comical.
This insight need not preclude a struggle with the issues, but a perspective on them. At many points, you wonder at Clooney’s aplomb even with the anguish etched into his aging skin. Many would describe him as cold, unloving, perhaps, but that’s our bias on how a person should deal with tragedy. One moment he lashes out at a comatose wife, the next he signs a paper, calmly, and then rationally thinks through a business deal.  At first, it’s hard to accept the performance, but somehow, you begin to believe in the possibility of acceptance, even in the face of death. He’s not hiding, he’s just living.
Even the “angry daughter” transcends her stereotype. She stops raging at the same point that Clooney stops wallowing in his own pain: the moment they realize that others need them, that another human being relies on them for emotional health and well-adjustment. The movie, simply doesn't have time to focus on the debilitating pain of life, there’s simply too much to do, too much beauty to experience, too many relationships to repair. (Suffice to say that these are very American sentiments...)
It’s an odd perspective on the grieving process, a calm one, almost stoic except for a few outbursts. But these seem less like repressions or suppression  than choices of attention, awareness and focus. The movie, puts forth the crazy contention that we can overcome our emotions, no matter how compelling, the alternative is. It asserts that we can, when we need to actually be there for other people, we can be there, fully. It’s a movie of a family surviving tragedy, growing together, creating an intimacy that only tragedy creates, but without any sense of bitterness. The story uses few innovative narrative maneuvers and partakes of similarly simple storytelling. It almost follows a pre-existing map of this well worn movie terrain, but it embraces thisy because its power lies not in its innovation, but in its ability to present a certain type of well-adjustment, of health, unabashedly. We often applaud actors and writers who can truly push the line of shocking, but we valorize this type at our our risk. Because. need it be our gauge of true art? Is it less art if instead of shocking, the characters do what we hope happens, what we want to happen, i.e. they overcome? It sounds like a cliche, but maybe that’s what make it so compelling: its sincerity.  
In terms of the acting, of course, Clooney shines, but not too brightly to overshadow the brilliant cast of actors for this movie. Lillard and Greer, both comic actors, give great performances as a weak, but genuine loving couple. King’s children, a bullying, cussing, angry ten year old, gives the best child performance this year since the young Sean Penn in the Tree of life, and the teenager, a stunning young beauty who plays a budding alcoholic, who relishes any chance to wear a bikini, gives the angry performance that we expect from Clooney. Together, they play off each other, forcing the other to mature faster than they could. However, perhaps the best performance, besides Clooney, comes from Clooney/King’s father in the law, the always great, Robert Foster. His anger is distinctly raw in a movie of such control. It’s stunning in its visceral inability to accept the death of his daughter.
The movie moves at a perfect, calm pace, leading up to some of the most subtly moving scenes I’ve seen on screen in a while. The movie lives in Hawaii, in its beauty, its air, its music, and each scene reminds you of the oddity of living in paradise while simultaneously living through hell, but it never feels like a contradiction. And what an ending. The ending is a silent knockout that will stay with you, and oddly turn into your own warm memory, days after.
Thanks for reading,

I’m attaching a contextually strange article, but it’s a watershed piece on the skewed concept of resiliency and grief by a great and readable psychologist, George Bonnano. I think it fits perfectly with the movie. It’s a nice amalgam of art and science. Let me know what you think.


  1. Nice review, Joe.

    I think you ignore Sid - who is the most obviously cliched part of the movie. I agree that the rest of the movie can transcend the cliche, but Sid is glaring.

    Also, you should mention that the screenplay was written by Jim Rash, better known as the Dean from Community...

  2. I guess I ignored Sid for that exact reason. And I think the little tidbit about the writer makes this movie all the more endearing. Thanks, Ari.