Movie Review: ‘The Descendants’

Over the weekend I had the increasingly-rare opportunity to watch a film that 1) had only recently become available via Redbox, 2) was driven primarily by the development of the characters in the story, 3) did not feature animated chipmunks, and 4) contained – at least as far as I could tell – almost zero in the realm of explosions and/or special effects. Instead, the primary strengths of the film were tied to the quality of the writing, the spot-on portrayals of real people living in a broken world and a generous helping of snappy dialogue. One of the unintended side-effects of renting The Descendants was to force me to realize that I hadn’t seen a film like this in quite a long time.

Everyone seems to have their own personal opinion of George Clooney, of course, but it has been my observation that he is actually a fairly talented actor, more than able to set aside whatever “Clooney the Celebrity” persona he carries with him in service of smaller, more tightly-focused films. I find him somewhat harder to accept as authentic in “big” films such as the Oceans Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen series, for example, but whatever cultural cachet he carries into those larger films pretty much disappears in The Descendants. In short, he does such a superb job with the character of Matt King that I was able to forget entirely about Clooney the Big Movie Star. It is his character Matt King – not Clooney – that sticks in the heart and mind after the end credits roll.

I have seen a few other films by writer/director Alexander Payne, most memorably About Schmidt, and I have always thought enough of him as an auteur that I confidently decided to watch this latest offering without reading any plot summaries, reviews or Facebook postings. All that to say that the three of us – me, my wife and our daughter – went into the film completely “blind,” knowing only the most basic facts about the plotline. While stopping short of recommending this film to everyone – it is rated R, and legitimately so – my immediate response was overwhelmingly positive, a strong thumbs-up for the ways in which Payne so carefully peels back the facade of the modern American family to reveal the ugly creepy-crawlies scurrying around in the inmost cavern of the typical human heart.

The film, as I said, is relatively new to the rental market, so I will not be offering up anything in the way of “spoilers,” but then again the film depends less on momentous events and increasingly shows us more of what’s really going on within the souls of those trapped in a situation that all but guarantees that both the uglier and the more humane sides of all involved will be forced, against their will, into the spotlight of the examination room.

Payne, in my opinion, does a fantastic job of putting several real people in front of us, with the maddening effect of forcing us to waffle on our emotions. Just when we think we have decided that one character is “the bad guy,” we are confounded over and over by an authentic act of human kindness. A harsh, true word left mercifully unspoken. Pity toward someone who has inflicted great emotional damage. A refusal to give up on a really dumb guy who has a knack for saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. On and on it goes, even as the characters systematically uncover hearts of relentless self-focus in their loved ones.

At a key moment in the film, three family members are sitting at a patio table on a perfect day in paradise, enjoying drinks, relishing each other’s company and anticipating a lifetime of ease, a work-free existence that will soon be fueled by millions upon millions of real estate dollars. It was in that very specific moment that I thought The Descendants did a tremendous job of exposing the depravity of the human heart, along with (perhaps more importantly) the surface-thick veneer that passes for love in our modern age. Where previous generations were prone to forge soul-deep relationships with family members as they mutually struggled against the elements, hostile conditions and the capricious whims of Fate, family relationships in the 21st century have morphed into thin, sickly and often-resented ties that vanish at the first sign of disagreement. As one character puts it so memorably, “We’re going to come after you, Matty! All of us. And we don’t even care that you’re a (expletive) attorney.” (Pause.) “But hey, we’re family! We don’t want to do that. And we won’t need to…if you’ll just play ball here.”

“Family of origin” issues run deep with me. Maybe this is true, at some level, for everyone. The Descendants is not a movie well-suited to anyone who is looking to throw over everything that is going on around them for some brain-dead entertainment. I suspect that watching it will call to mind several real people, names and faces, that occupy a place in your own heart, whether past or present.

For his part, Payne has put his finger squarely on that singular topic that I find so hard to deal with in an age of paper-thin commitments to one another, namely the increased tendency we all seem to have to “cut and run” from relationships at the first sign of difficulty. I realize that this is definitely not the case for everyone, though; I personally know several committed Christians who have hung tough and stayed in various relationships even as one or more of the people involved had come completely loose of their emotional and spiritual moorings. Still, it seems as though the rugged individualism that makes up a huge part of the uniquely-American psyche has indeed spun out of control to the point that everyone is “playing the game” for whatever might be in it for them personally; self-sacrifice has become something of a lost art, a truth that Matt King spends 115 minutes of screen time trying to figure out: How do I behave honorably in the midst of tragedy, multiple personal betrayals and a deepening realization that I myself have contributed significantly to bringing all of this about?

As a previously divorced, now remarried, former alcoholic man in his early 50’s, I found multiple points of contact with the character of Matt King, though the surface qualities of our lives could hardly be more different. Perhaps a viewer needs to be “of a certain age” and have accumulated an array of impressive life disappointments to fully appreciate what Payne has wrought in The Descendants. There were, for example, several points at which Clooney’s silences conveyed more than the dialogue; attempts at heart-level communication are met with a casual indifference, and Matt King is left to fend for himself, at least on an emotional level. Forced by circumstance to convey difficult information to his kids, his relatives and multiple individuals who are all in their own way seeking to tear Matt’s family apart, the best that can be offered is a knowing stare, a look that essentially says, “Yeah…you’re really not getting it, are you?”

Family life can be hard. Relationships are tested. Loyalties can shift in an instant. Betrayals are depressingly commonplace. The true heart is often revealed in tragedy. These themes are so masterfully presented in Payne’s work that I would not hesitate to recommend it to the vast majority of my friends, though I might hold back for those that have only recently experienced a family tragedy of some sort. The film opens in a hospital room, and does not flinch at presenting the harsh realities of life, death, and the mess we make of things in the meantime.

I found the final few minutes of the film to be redemptive, if only in a limited fashion. For the besieged King family of Hawaii, the sharing of simple pleasures is the best possible form of redemption available to them in that moment. Filling in the blanks left open by Payne, I want to believe that a small-scale reconciliation was only the beginning. Unexpected tragedy has forced Matt King to begin living his life redemptively, though as yet he has no larger framework to explain why he has this desire; certainly no one around him shares that selfless worldview, and Matt himself had lived his life in precisely the same manner…up until now. Having lived much of my own life in an ungodly fashion, I share Matt’s confusion over why he has been suddenly drawn out to live life differently. I see the final frames of the film as beautiful in their own way, an indicator that Matt’s purposeful life has only just begun.

2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (ESV)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

2 Corinthians 5:16-20 (ESV)
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

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