The Descendants directed by Alexander Payne (Ad Hominem Enterprises, R, 115 minutes)

Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Amara Miller.

In Remembrance of Those Lost

Tragedy does silly things to a human being. It can either bring family together, or ruin what little semblance of family remaining. It causes people to find religion, or causes others to dive headfirst into addiction. When a loved one passes, we speak of them glowingly as if our words create a halo around the deceased. Through tragedy we resolve to live better as if life changes could honor the memory of a loved one passed.
Yet in death, just as in life, people carry their demons alongside their virtues. In Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, Matt King (George Clooney) struggles with the impending death of his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) and what it means to move forward with his two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller).

A Lawyer and His Daughters

Matt, a lawyer and sole trustee of 25,000 acres of land in Kauai which has belonged to his family for generations, lives in Honolulu. Despite the vast material wealth accumulated in past generations, Matt believes in the virtue of hard work and the notion that a parent ought to give his children just enough money to do something, rather than too much money so that descendants do nothing whatsoever. As such, the Kings live modestly despite the impending sale of the family’s 25,000 acres of land.
Matt’s wife sits in a coma, a victim of a tragic high-speed boating accident. With news of her deteriorating condition, Matt faces the unenviable position of relaying the news to his family and friends.
Upon learning of her mother’s fate, Alexandra, Matt’s daughter, interjects news of her mother’s supposed affair. Shocked, Matt begins investigating the claims. As a result, the rest of the movie teeters between the memorialization of a dying loved one and the intense pain of betrayal by that very same person.

Where Beauty Meets Pain

As a backdrop, the pristine beauty of Hawai’i balances the dark, depressing themes of the film and the book upon which the movie is based. In passing, we all think that living on the Hawaiian Islands represents some sort of paradise. To reside there, one hopes, is to live on a perpetual vacation filled with mai-tais and a perfectly balanced tan. But, this film reminds us that nobody can escape the perils of life. A cheating spouse and the death of a family member still happen in the midst of beautiful backdrop.
I wonder whether this movie could succeed outside of the tropical location. In truth, it is a depressing film; yet the beauty of nature counteracts the grim topics. Had this movie been set in Chicago, it might not have succeeded.

An Oscar Worthy Performance

Finally, I must mention George Clooney and his acting that stabilizes the film. With inner strength and a quiet pain, Clooney musters an impeccable performance worthy of the nominations he is receiving. Is it Clooney’s best? It’s hard to say since I haven’t watched all of his movies. Of the performances I have encountered, Clooney’s acting in The Descendantsis one of his best; yet at the same time, the performance does not offer a stark departure from Clooney’s previous work.

The Descendants reminds us of the frailty of human life and relationships. We ought not consider the loved ones we have lost in a softened light; we ought to remember them in their frailty and humanity. To forget the dirty spots is to forget the person. While carrying a sad tone, The Descendants reveals a beauty well worth watching.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards
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