Imagine that you are a 40-something lawyer, married with two daughters, living on the island of Oahu, and the sole administrator of a century old land trust; somewhat estranged from your wife, who recently incurred a head injury in a boating accident that landed her in the ICU.
You find yourself suddenly cast in the role of primary parent, unsure as to how to relate to your rebellious children in your wife’s absence; when you discover that your wife was having an extramarital affair. To complicate matters a bit further, your wife’s physician informs you that your wife has been declared brain-dead. Soon life support will be withdrawn and she will be allowed to die.
If you’ve followed this convoluted cinematic plot so far, you can readily guess at the myriad emotions that Matt King (George Clooney) is experiencing all at once: grief at his wife’s passing, anger at her for her marital infidelity, frustration in his attempts to parent his two rebellious daughters, and a twisted need to find and inform his wife’s lover so he also can say goodbye to her before it’s too late.
These are the sorts of swirling concomitant emotions that no one man should have to bear, yet bear them Matt King does with a subtle helping of grace to get him through.
Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” takes pains to examine each of these scenarios in heart-rending detail juxtaposed against a subplot of wrestling with the decision for disposition of the family land trust. Although there are moments filled with welcomed comic relief, for the most part the viewer finds himself pulled into the emotional turmoil depicted on the big screen.
Some years ago I attended a conference on the island of Kauai. I recall much of the landscape depicted in the film, from the pristine beach at Hanalei to the Na Pali cliffs rising 4,000 feet up from the sea.
Despite the beauty of the countryside and the lulling Hawaiian music, “The Descendants” is no adventure in paradise. The human condition is the same the world over, no matter the culture or the socioeconomic status of the family.
Yet in the final scene we witness this fractured family of descendants somehow bonding again, silently sharing the warmth of the counterpane that lay across the mother’s hospital bed and bowls of ice cream on the loveseat in front of the TV.