The Descendants – 2011
I had seen this movie a long time ago, and the first time I had seen it, I had thought it to be slow and boring. But this time around, I have a completely different opinion. Yes, it was slow, but that was intentional, and there was a pretty good reason. It was not boring, but had some really heavy drama that actually kept my interest. It had really strong themes of loss and forgiveness, two things that can be really difficult to come to terms with. It was about how tragedy can have a way of bringing a fractured family together.
George Clooney played Matt King. He is a Hawaii based lawyer who is the sole trustee of twenty-five thousand acres of pristine, unused land on the island of Kauai. Because the trust is expiring in seven years, he and his nine cousins, Hugh, Ralph, Hal, Milo, Stan, Six, Wink, Connie, and Dave, most of whom have already squandered their personal inheritances, decide to sell the land and make a hefty profit of about half a billion dollars. Everything seems perfect until tragedy strikes.
Matt’s somewhat estranged wife, Elizabeth, has a boating accident and goes into a coma. Matt, whose career gave him little time for his family, must now be a father to his two daughters who he barely knows. On top of all that, the doctors tell him that his wife is not going to wake up, and that she has a clause in her will that stipulates that should such a tragedy occur, she should not be kept on life support. Legally, the plug must be pulled, and she must be allowed to die. This is the main drama of the film, and it’s a good one.
Elizabeth’s impending death is what drives all the film’s emotional content. It isn’t a question of whether or not she will die, but of when it will happen. It throws an air of depression over the entire story. And the emotional mood was so perfectly set by the wonderful Hawaiian music performed by various artists. It was all absolutely beautiful in a very sad and melancholy way. It was able to showcase within the film not only the beautiful and easy-going Hawaiian culture, but also with a peaceful, quiet, and introspective way of saying goodbye to a loved one.
Matt’s two daughters, Alexandra and Scottie, played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, both come to terms with Elizabeth’s injuries in their own ways. The ten year old Scottie acts out by being mean to her schoolmates, while the seventeen year old Alex hooks up with a stoner boyfriend named Sid, played by Nick Krause, while expressing extreme anger at her parents. But Alex’s irritation has a very specific base. She knew that her mother had been having an affair, and that her father had been too busy with his career to suspect his wife of infidelity.
Matt goes on a mission to find his wife’s lover. He is a real estate agent named Brian Speer, played by Matthew Lillard. I have never known Lillard to be a great actor, but I thought he did just fine in this little one-note role. More impressive was his wife, Julie, played by Judy Greer. After Matt confronts Brian, he leaves without telling his wife, saying that if he loved Elizabeth at all, he should go to the hospital to say his own goodbyes. But Julie, already suspicious of her husband’s philandering, forces the truth out of him, herself.
The scene where she shows up at the hospital with flowers to forgive the woman who had wronged her was pretty powerful. Knowing that she should hate Elizabeth, she instead goes out of her way to forgive her in a gush of bitter tears, prompting Matt to make his final goodbyes, kissing her and shedding a few tears of his own. It was a difficult scene to watch. After that there was little to do but wait for her to die. And when she did, it was peaceful and easy. Matt and his daughters lovingly scattered Elizabeth’s ashes in the waters of Waikiki.
Matt decides not to sell the trust, telling the cousins, the most prominent one being Cousin Hugh, played by Beau Bridges, that he has seven years to find out how to legally keep it in the family’s possession. The deal basically screws the cousins out of the millions of dollars they stood to receive, while saving the inheritance of the land for their children, and their children’s children.
The movie was very emotional and Clooney did a fantastic job. I’m glad I watched this movie a second time. For whatever reason, I was able to watch it with a different perspective than before. The themes of forgiveness and healing seemed to resonate with me in a very positive way. And I have to give special props to the director, Alexander Payne, and cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, for really showing off the spectacular natural beauty of the Hawaiian Islands. Just gorgeous. Well done everyone.