Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Descendants

I almost didn't finish this film. In fact, I kind of spent a week hating it, not knowing if it was my gender or personal impatience that drove me to do so, but regardless, I wasn't sold. There were definitely things about it that I thought were well done, and if you'll grant me a tiny spoiler allowance, the ending definitely ranked among my top five favorite film endings, ever, so it really bothered me that I didn't love it and I gave it another shot. What I took from the second viewing was that this is an incredibly powerful, emotionally difficult story that captures the very essence of humanity; The Descendants might just be the most honest thing to come out of Hollywood yet.
George Clooney plays Matt King, an Oahu-dwelling lawyer with a life that seems to be headed for disaster. His wife has just been seriously injured in a boating accident, he's having a hard time relating to his two daughters ("I'm the back-up parent, the understudy,") and he's in the middle of a landmark decision over the property his family owns on Kauai, something the entire state is following. Soon after Matt learns that his wife will never come out of the trauma-induced coma she's in, his teenage daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) informs him that her mother had been cheating on him, and the two had fought about it at length before the accident. Armed with this uncomfortable knowledge, Matt makes arrangements for friends and family to say their farewells and eventually comes to terms with his own feelings and what he wants for his family.

Before we get to the film's Oscar-worthiness, it's necessary to address that this is a man's story, a father's story----and one that might leave women (at least at first, the way it did me) feeling a little cast aside. Matt King's wife, Elizabeth, never utters a word during the course of the film, and is repeatedly shown defenseless in her hospital bed, greasy-haired and open-mouthed. That she cheated on Matt is obviously unpleasant and undisputed, but she doesn't ever get the chance to explain her actions. Save for the brokenhearted pleadings of her father (Robert Forester) and the two framed photographs of her, one as a child and the other as an adult, Elizabeth as a human being and Elizabeth's feelings do not factor into this story very much. We're mostly able to see pieces of who she was through stories of rebellion (extreme boating, cheating, doing things always "her own way"), and through her daughters, who obviously cared for her but are conflicted about their feelings over her infidelity, but make no mistake: this is Matt's story.

The journey is an important one, and one that however uncomfortable, is pertinent for a lot of men. Money. Property. Communication. Common concerns, yes, but coupled with the certain death of an unfaithful spouse, things start to get tricky. When Matt receives the news that Elizabeth will never recover, Clooney's acting chops have never been better, transitioning from a controlled emotional breakdown (conveyed mostly through facial expression) to instant optimism when faced with the couple's two best friends, inquiring as to her condition. Later, when he informs Alexandra that her mother will soon die, she, too makes to hide her reaction (plunging underwater in the family pool) but then discloses her mother's infidelity to Matt, who listens carefully and then takes off running. It's not an arbitrary thing, Matt and his daughter disguising their true feelings; in a lot of ways, the story focuses on being honest, choosing forgiveness, and putting yourself on the line for your family, especially when it's the most difficult. 
So in addition to Clooney's performance, what makes this film an Oscar contender? Director Alexander Payne obviously has made great strides in showing us just how laborious and painful life can be---mainly that the people we love can and do hurt us and parents don't always have all the answers--but while focusing upon a very serious set of situations, still manages to keep Matt King's story from becoming dark or depressing. There's something very awe-inspiring about an average man, thrust into chaos, who in the end does the right thing. Paradise might initially be told to go fuck itself, but at the end of the day, this film's resolution and closing scene are as close to perfect as any I've ever seen. Things aren't fixed, exactly, and there will inevitably be more problems down the road, but in the world of parents and children, sometimes all that is needed is a quiet evening on the couch with ice cream. Would that all our problems iron out that way.