Film/Video/TV Annotations


The Descendants


MediumFilm
On-Line Video
KeywordsCatastrophe, Children, Death and Dying, Family Relationships, Father-Daughter Relationship, Hospitalization, Illness and the Family, Love, Marital Discord, Sexuality, Society
Summary

The Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) has two big dilemmas. His large, extended family is thinking of selling their inherited 25,000 acres to a developer—and he must help the consortium decide what to do for the benefit of all. Worse, his wife Elizabeth is in a coma on life support following a severe injury from water skiing. He is trying to parent their two daughters, aged 10 and 17, but the girls are unruly and sulky. He thinks that they are acting out because of their mother’s absence.

The doctors tell Matt that Elizabeth will never recover. According to her living will, she does not want to be left on a machine; they must pull the plug. Matt confides in the older daughter who then informs him that Elizabeth had been having an affair. Her sullenness is sublimated anger with her mother for—among other things—how Matt had been treated. Other family friends know of the infidelity and identify the lover as Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) a real estate agent living on Kaua’i.

Amazed by his wife’s secret, Matt overcomes his sense of betrayal and resolves to respect her feelings, find the lover and give him a chance to say goodbye. The little family flies to Kaua’i looking for Brian and to deal with the sale of the family estate.  Matt meets Brian’s beautiful wife Julie– who is sympathetic to his situation, not knowing of the connection with her husband. When Matt confronts Brian, he is surprised that Brian has no interest in saying good-bye to Elizabeth. What, for Elizabeth, had been a life-changing relationship, for Brian, was a fling that “just happened” and which he wants to forget. He is terrified that Julie will discover his infidelity and leave him.

Matt contends that “things do not just happen.” Everything happens for a reason. Wondering what his own role had been in Elizabeth’s reasons for taking part in the affair, Matt goes home for her death. But he also decides not to sell the family estate and keep it as a nature preserve over the opposition of many cousins.  Brian never appears, but Julie has learned of his infidelity and she comes to the hospital out of duty and horror. It is not clear if her marriage will survive.

In the final scene, Matt and his daughters are in a little boat off Waikiki where they spread Elizabeth’s ashes.

 

Commentary

Although the plot has many soapy aspects, the excellent acting and writing make this film an interesting exploration of several important issues. End-of-life decisions; the impact of severe illness on children; the possibility of deep secrets within marriage.

Matt is well intentioned, but largely passive in his relationships with the entire world. He had left the parenting to Elizabeth, he was oblivious to her unhappiness, he went along with his family’s wishes. Her dying forces him to make active decisions about his personal life – and these actions promise to spill over into his future. Nothing “just happens.”

DirectorAlexander Payne
Leading ActorsGeorge Clooney, Matthew Lillard
StudioFox Searchlight Pictures
Year2011
Color/BWColor
Running Time115 minutes
Video SourceFox Searchlight Pictures
Alternate SourceColor
MiscellaneousBased on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Won Academy Award for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay, also nominated for Oscar for Best Achievement in Directing, Best Achievement in Film Editing, Best Motion Picture, and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. Won Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Drama, Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama. Also nominated for Golden Globe for Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Screenplay. Nominated for, and won, multiple other awards.
Annotated by Duffin, Jacalyn
Date of Entry 08/08/12
Last Revised 08/15/12