When I was about 16, I went on a Boy Scout trip to the Bahamas. I and about four other guys my age had the rare opportunity to man an actual sailboat for more than a week. The scattered islands of the oceanic nation were our playground, and we got to hop from one tiny little city to the next with absolute freedom. The water was crystal clear, and we could see all the way to the ocean floor at any given point in time. We saw an abandoned resort, where years of hurricanes had ripped away the luxury veneer and left behind a ruined husk. The natives called the island Jurassic Park. We bought supplies from the small towns and cooked our own food. We never used the engine on the boat, just the sails, and navigated the waters of paradise with our bare hands.
The Descendants begins with a face smiling in the wind, carefree, hair down. The ocean stretches behind her, the sky is a perfect blue. It’s a film about paradise, but not the paradise you expect. Every time I tell someone I travelled to the Bahamas with the Boy Scouts, the first image conjured is lazy dads who wanted to take advantage of the Boy Scout name to get away from the family and hit the resorts, but we saw the third-world part, the part with run down houses and broken streets. The part that they don’t show you in the commercials. Following that introductory shot of unspoiled paradise, we get the skinny on how life really works, and a biting accusation from the film’s main character: How could you be so shallow? How could you think life is simple just because we live in Hawaii? Matt King, played by perhaps this year’s biggest actors, George Clooney, provides a bitter voice over that sharply contrasts the uniformly pristine archipelago imagery that rolls as he speaks. It turns out that that smiling face that introduced this movie was his wife, and that she was shortly thereafter flung from the seat of that speedboat and irreversably injured. Matt abandons his life-absorbing real estate occupation to rush to her side. He screwed up. This is his wake up call.
Only the life that he hoped to salvage wasn’t at all what he thought it was in the first place. His wife’s injuries? They’re permanent. The doctor will soon have to pull the plug. His marriage? Turns out she’d been cheating on him for months. The Descendants begins in complete disarray, and to add to the chaos, Matt King has to soon decide whether to sell a massive chunk of untouched paradise to development companies, a decision that his vast collection of relatives stand to profit from enormously. But director Alexander Payne plays with this mess with at once mischief maker’s twinkle in his eye and a steady, meticulous hand. The narrative juxtaposition of wild earth with messy relationships is wholly intentional and masterfully orchestrated as the film unfolds, quickly showing us that the opening narrative, a frustrated stab at facades and ignorance, was a carefully calculated narrative insertion. Matt King must decide exactly how much the mess behind the mask is worth to him, and along the way discover how exactly to hold the whole thing together.
The Descendants’ cast brings the debacle to brilliant, irresistible life, with George Clooney’s decidedly un-omniscient, flawed monologue and broken, unsure demeanour both pulling us in and pushing us away at the same time. He’s always been one of the coolest, most collected stars in Hollywood, mostly due to his voice. He just sounds like he has it all together, which makes his opening monologue perfect. We think he thinks he’s got it together. He knows what he has to settle things with his wife once she awakes from her coma, and we of course agree with him. It’s George Clooney’s voice, for goodness sakes. You don’t argue with that. But then he finds out she’s not going to wake up. He finds out she cheated on him. His eyes search everywhere. He runs, arms flailing everywhere and sandaled feet awkwardly flopping down blocks of suburban streets, to find out who she cheated on him with. His most endearing and sympathetic trait is how he interacts with his young and angry/confused daughters. One is ten; she breaks things and malignantly bullies her classmates. The other is in her late teens, and the first time we see her is by flashlight in the darkened yard of a boarding school, drunk. Just about the first thing we hear her say “Fuck mom!” The business-minded professional dad is ill-suited at best to deal with this, and he knows it.
It doesn’t take long for his oldest daughter, played with attitude by Shaileen Woodley, to come around and become just the source of stability that Matt needs. Their interactions are magic, with a chemistry necessary to make a movie like this not only watchable, but enthralling. Brought together by the impending death of Mrs. King, they go through a chaotic and unpredictable journey to make things right, or at least as right things can be made, beginning with letting the rest of the family know she’s dying. And figure out who she cheated with. And confront her silent figure about how much she screwed up. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget the millions of dollars and life of luxury banking on the sale of half an island. Based on the novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings and written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Descendants goes everywhere at once, and yet never explodes into a mess. In fact, in wasn’t until after I left the theater and recapped the plot that I realized just how topsy-turvy and detached the plot is. The writers knew exactly where to take the characters at any given point in the film, and how to elicit character development from each unique situation without making the journey seem forced.
One seemingly forgotten thread gradually becomes more and more important as the film progresses, looming beneath sub-narrative, then popping back into dialogue from point to point, and then at last becoming central: The lineage of the Kings. Sure, it may seem trite that Matt and his family’s last name is King, given that they are the descendants of the centuries-old Hawaiian kings themselves, but this is again a carefully calculated play at our perception of facades. You see, these ancestors entrusted a vast tract of pristine island territory to their progeny. Matt has always said that it’s best to give his kids enough to do something, but not enough to do nothing. The idea of economic responsibility pops up early on, before being nudged into the background by the more prescient matter of Elizabeth King’s coma and impending death. But you’ll notice how huge a presence the island landscape is in this film visually.
Alexander Payne isn’t playing with just paradise visuals to set his cast in a blissful paradise, nor is it just a little trick to awe us with neato, exotic settings. No, this isn’t just a cinematic getaway for the cast and viewers; it’s a visual reminder of something incredibly important that both we and the film’ cast seem to have conveniently forgotten about. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say this: The film revels in both epic island imagery, from vast beaches, towering cliffs and deep blue waters, as well as the more mundane imagery, but the kind that sneaks its way into everyday life. The suburbs barely clinging to steep island hills with towering palm trees rupturing the attempt at urbanization, the looming mountain walls hovering over wealthy, cosmetic neighborhoods. But the color palette favors both the rich colors of wildlife and landscape shots, as well as the opulent interiors of those wealthy domiciles. There isn’t a contrast between interior and exterior; rather, both seem to coexist in both reality and in the viewer’s mind, making it particularly hard to remember that one nagging impulse you had at the begining of the film.
Unity, though, is perhaps the strongest point of this film, because it’s not just a story about how a dad deals with family troubles, and it’s not just a film about how much the environment matters. Stars George Clooney and Shaileen Woodley deserve the highest accolades for mastering their complex and constantly evolving roles in this picture and never once letting us doubt the sincerity or humor of their screwed up lives. Once the film concludes, you realize that the idea of restored family relationships somehow coincides perfectly with the acceptance of ancient, traditional Hawaiian responsibility. Plot and theme is woven masterfully in The Descendants, in ways that make perfect sense and are yet a perfect surprise. It melds this idea of the value of what is entrusted to us perfectly with the story of a dad who has a perfect mess dumped in his lap in the last way he expected, and the result is one of the most thematically ambitious, sincere and unassuming films of 2011.