Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Tuesday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Film: THE DESCENDANTS

I reviewed The Descendants last year at this link.  It struck us then as a very good movie.  Now we think it is a great movie.

On the surface, it is a character study in which a man must examine his inner feelings and seek to transform his outer self to reflect his true inner self once he looks inward and discovers what it is. Shakespeare had it right:  Love does not alter when alteration finds, even if that alteration is that the loved one no longer loves us back.

The film is nicely shot, understated, sincere. No preview clip can do it justice. It says what it says without putting it into soundbites. It goes beyond the best words spoken for it, even by George Clooney when interviewed by Charlie Rose.

Immature materialistic viewers who haven’t learned how to love except in the juvenile, possessive sense, see it but don’t get it. They’re liable to like the story of the daughters but completely gag on the love story at the heart of the film. It’s like Anna Karenina, where the emotionally immature think the true love story is between Anna and Vronsky, rather than Levin’s love for Kitty.

What passes for love in this juvenile and materialist society is usually only the possessive kind of love, which is more akin to property rights.
The Descendants was well liked, but it didn't garner the kind of praise heaped on Tree of Life.  Some said it lacked ambition, a cute chick flick that didn't say much.  Since then, my wife and I have discussed it and now we see even more in it--much more.  In fact, on the level of parable, it was the best movie of its year.

The other day, I posted a quote from Wendell Berry, who said that the country is divided by boomers and stickers.  The boomer types are the laissez-faire capitalists who want to make a buck any way they can.  Drain the fish from the oceans until they are gone, sell the national parks, drill baby drill.  The stickers are the real conservatives.  The boomers are motivated by greed, but the stickers are motivated by genuine affection for Creation.

It is easy to see this as another rendition of the Adam and Eve Myth, which is itself a parable of the evolutionary fall of consciousness into animal man.  The snake who tempts Eve in here says that he never returned her affection, that he just wanted sex.  This same man wants to rake commercially for reasons of ego and personal wealth, while selling out paradise.

We watched the Tree of Life and The Descendants in succession, and my wife pointed out how much things had changed for the better since the 1950s, and I pointed out the scene where George Clooney’s character says to his young daughter and her boyfriend, “Stop touching each other in front of me; it’s as if you have no respect for authority.”

George Clooney as Matt King is Adam, the Gardener, the caretaker of a part of Paradise.  The boyfriend thinks he is smart, and says so, but the father knows that he is far from smart, because he sees himself in the young. The young have no such insight into the old.

At first, Clooney is a bad husband, an indifferent father, and a sell-out to the greedy snakes in suits.  But as the movie progresses, there is a change over what went before. George Clooney’s character wakes up and comes alive as his wife dies. There is a new covenant based upon love that brings forgiveness along with a sense of responsibility. He at last steps out of the duality of possessive love and loves his wife unconditionally–-or recognizes that he has all along, though it takes him a while. The decision to do what in the long run is best for Paradise, Creation, the land-–in spite of the opinions of a majority of its Trust members–-that decision too is fitting, right and loving and responsible.

As the patriarch protecting the land, the Clooney/King character may eventually fall to the lawyers of the capitalist interests, but meanwhile, at the end of the film, we see him covered by the same sunny quilt that covered the mother in the hospital.

There is a terrific article by Elbert Ventura at this link comparing the The Descendants with Tree of Life:  The Palm Tree of Life.

Shailene Woodley as Alex
From Ventura's Slate Magazine review linked above:

Nominated for five Academy Awards, boasting an 89 percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes, and tallying a healthy $75 million (and counting) at the box office, The Descendants is hardly in need of a defense—but it is in need of further discussion. For all its success, Alexander Payne’s film has been less unappreciated than unexamined. Skeptics have dismissed it as mezzobrow indiewood, undeserving of scrutiny; yet even supporters have undersold its virtues, fixating on its (considerable) surface pleasures without noticing that Payne has made a layered and searching piece of work. Don’t let the soothing uke and sun-dappled sadness fool you—The Descendants is no less interested in the cosmic than that exegete’s delight The Tree of Life.

Perhaps Payne’s insistence on making human-scaled drama obscures his reach. Allergic to grandiosity, his movies depict losers, schlubs, and schmos dealing with domestic turmoil and personal crises in a nondescript, lived-in America. Across those movies, Payne has carved out an authorial identity defined by career-making performances (Reese Witherspoon in Election, Paul Giamatti in Sideways), adroit tone shifts, and the pitch-perfect rendering of life in these United States.

The Descendants shares many of those qualities, which might explain why the critical conversation surrounding the movie has seemed stunted, with most reviews amounting to little more than pronouncements of what “worked” and what didn’t. What such assessments overlook is a major American director working on his largest canvas yet and confronting some pretty fundamental questions. If Payne’s previous movies cast a sidelong glance at How We Live Now, this one emerges as an affecting inquiry into How We Live, period.

Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants tells the story of Matt King (George Clooney), a real-estate lawyer whose wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), plunges into a permanent coma after a boating accident. But the grieving is interrupted when his teenage daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), reveals that Elizabeth had been having an affair. Meanwhile, another crisis looms as Matt, trustee of a large parcel of beachfront property on Kauai, presides over the dissolution of the trust—and finds himself having second thoughts about selling paradise despite the windfall awaiting him and his cousins.

The title alludes to both plotlines. The Descendants spends most of its time with Matt and his descendants, Alex and Scottie (Amara Miller), the inattentive father explicitly wondering how to raise two daughters he has barely parented. But the movie also reminds us of Matt the descendant, privileged recipient of a lavish patrimony. At a couple of points, Payne interrupts the action to ruminate on ghostly photographs of Matt’s ancestors, staring back from the past as he ponders their bequest’s future. These haunting interludes give resonance to Matt’s earthly thrashings, anchoring his experience in something bigger than himself.

The setting only enlarges the film’s scope. Much has been made of The Descendants’ focus on quotidian Hawaii, but such praise always seemed overblown. As J. Hoberman notes, “Despite a gesture or two toward Honolulu’s downside, Hawaii still feels like heaven on earth.” He meant that as a putdown, but it misses what Payne’s up to. The Descendants’ Hawaii is Edenic all right—intentionally so. Montages of the lush landscape not only offer rhythmic punctuation to the narrative, but gather cumulative power as emblems of eternity itself. Reminiscent of Ozu, these pillow shots—of sea against sky, mountains over beaches—encase the movie’s human drama in an elemental frame. The cutting between Matt’s grief and the indifferent beauty and humbling grandeur of the natural world suggests a transcendental perspective—as does Matt’s about-face on selling the land to developers. The Malickian outlook reaches its apotheosis in a climactic montage that transports us from a deathbed to clouds, cliffs, and shoreline, telescoping us from the earthbound to the timeless. It’s a diaphanous flourish all the more powerful for capping a resolutely naturalistic movie.

The title is something of a giveaway. Dripping with biblical freight, it all but asks us to think of the story as metaphor. Finely observed family portraiture becomes something else: By the time Matt finally confronts his dilemma, it’s clear that the inheritance he’s brooding over isn’t just his—it’s ours as well. Payne suggests that we too came into an astounding bequest—our time in this world—and yet, as Matt admits of his birthright, we haven’t quite earned it. The Descendants implicitly asks: How do we justify this gift? What can supply meaning to an existence that’s but a blip in time?

The Thinker

It’s in that context that Matt makes his choices. To his wife’s lover, he grants permission to make one last visit to Elizabeth; to his resentful father-in-law, he hides news of Elizabeth’s infidelity; to the land itself, he chooses preservation over profit. There’s something to Bilge Ebiri’s dismissal that The Descendants is the latest in a genre he calls “George Clooney Does the Right Thing.” Peer beyond the feel-good veneer, however, and you see a director interrogating, with something approaching grace, why we end up doing the right thing.

Perhaps the movie’s most celebrated scene, the coda of Matt and the girls vegging on the couch and watching TV, offers something of a summa. On one level, the long-take scene is simplicity itself: A family restored, harmony achieved. But Payne packs the frame with suggestion. We see Scottie, curled up under a yellow quilt, the same one we saw over her mother when she breathed her last breath. It’s a lovely touch—the dead remembered and death reclaimed for the living. On the TV, we hear a familiar voice: Morgan Freeman narrating March of the Penguins. “It wasn’t always like this,” he intones, “Antarctica used to be a tropical paradise.” The snippet isn’t a throwaway gesture or a random choice, but a shrewd stroke. Juxtaposing real time with geological timelessness, Payne underscores his theme, even as gives his characters and the audience a gentle sendoff.

Except for the fleet stylishness of Election—a movie made under the spell of Casino—Payne has never been a showy filmmaker. The director himself admits that he makes movies “within the commercial American narrative cinema”— movies that are legible to a mass audience. That may be why The Descendants hasn’t been subjected to the critical unpacking it merits. Indeed, in its obsession with the past, with ancestors, with transience, eternity, and our raison d’être, The Descendants emerges as an unlikely diptych partner to The Tree of Life. Both are fixated on grief and the human response: If The Tree of Life is about the invention of God, The Descendants is about the invention of morality.

But while Malick’s movie inspired reams of engaged criticism, Payne’s has been a victim of critical complacency, damned (at best) as merely a good movie with good performances by a good director. It’s more than that. The Descendants is a sneakily profound film made by an artist in peak form. Pillow shots and inserts glimmer with meaning; the loveliest dissolves in recent cinema unlock reserves of emotion. The marketing tells us The Descendants is a vehicle for Clooney’s lifetime performance. Look closer, though, and it’s Payne’s breakthrough that you’ll see.

This is an adjunct of Todd Mason's Tuesday's Overlooked Films and/or Other A/V Series. You can see the entire list from several authors and bloggers at this link.


  1. Overlooked Films and/or Other A/V...the weekly meme. I've yet to see the film or read the novel, which I have a copy of, and I have to wonder how much Ventura is crediting Payne with which was in or implicit in the novel...

  2. I love this movie. Need to see it again.

  3. I'd be interested to see what you think, Todd.

    I read the novel, and it seems to me that Payne is responsible enlarging the surface story (which was framed around the actual land grabs) into a parable on the grand scale.

    The author was given a cameo role in the movie, in the way that Donn Pearce was given a cameo role in COOL HAND LUKE.

  4. http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_316_-_jim_rash

    Jim Rash on, among other aspects of his career, adapting THE DESCENDANTS for film.

  5. Thanks for that, Todd. There is also an informative backstory piece on the DVD.

    I should also mention Boyd White's fine article in FIRSTS: THE BOOK COLLECTOR'S MAGAZINE. White didn't see the deeper issues that we see, but thought that the film worked much better than the book. He credits the actors for the delightful movie, in which he says "every scene is a master class in acting."

    White says that "copies of THE DESCENDANTS are unaccountably scarce and already have begun to fetch premium prices."