Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Descendants: A Review

"Everyone's cross to bear is the crown they wear on endless holiday.
Everyone raises kids in a world that changes life to a bitter game.
Everyone works and fights, stays up all night to celebrate the day.
And everyone lives to tell the tale of how we die alone some day."

Up All Night (2011) by Blink-182

Warning: after the poster, it's spoilers all the way down.

I was once in attendance of a lecture where I learned that anagnorisis, leading to peripeteia, is the hallmark of an effective and superior tragedy. Anagnorisis is a Greek word denoting "recognition" and in Aristotlelian tragedy, it refers to the recognition of his or her or some other character's true identity, or uncovers the true nature of one's own situation. Peripeteia means to fall around or to change suddenly, and in dramatic context, it speaks of a sudden reversal of circumstances.

The Descendants can be broadly described as a drama in equal parts tragic and comedic - much in the same way one can describe real life, for that is what it is basically about. No, not all of us belong to an incredibly wealthy dynasty which descended from Hawaiian royalty and owns 25,000 acres of pristine real estate on the island of Kaua'i, but Matt King does and yet, his story remains sympathetic precisely because of how earthy, how human it is.

And it all started when his wife descended into a coma after a freak boating accident.

One unexpected benefit of going to medical school was that when the doctor told Matt King that his comatose wife was never going to regain consciousness - citing her lack of brainstem reflexes as one reason - I knew from the get go that there is never going to be a huge, triumphant scene where she opens her eyes and ask, "How long have I been asleep?" If that happens, it would have been a fucking miracle and I would have written this film off as fantasy (because that had never happened, ever). Knowing that when characters interact with her, they are essentially speaking to a corpse puppet made to look like it's alive allowed me to focus solely on the people around her, because she's just a prop. Now, according to Elizabeth's advance directive, she was to be disconnected from life support and thence sprang forth the story of this movie.

The thing I admire most about The Descendants is how it acknowledges the complex layers we human beings consist of, and displays them. Too often are characters simply playing a part, rather than being people in their own rights within their universe. Bad guys are there to be adversaries for the hero to defeat. The girl exists for the protagonist to win. However, the world of The Descendants was not built out of cardboard, but of finely woven tapetry.

The Descendants Poster
George Clooney is Matt King.

It was upon this rich and intricate fabric that anagnorisis unfurls. We follow Matt King as he tries, with much dignity, to pick up the metaphorical jetsam and flotsam of his family in the wake of his wife's demise - and failing miserably in the process. The first significant discovery Matt made was that the reason why his eldest daughter, Alex, had a falling out with her mother was because she was cheating on her father. One of the more memorable scenes in the film had Clooney ran all the way to the house of a couple which he and his wife was friends with, and confronted them - and as it turned out, they knew about the affair all along. Oh, so much of our lives are hidden from us that it's surprising that we even consider ourselves living! Of course, at the moment of anagnorisis was the peripeteia of Matt's relationship with his inanimate wife. Before the discovery, she was the wife he regretted for not lavishing enough time and gifts on when he could. Afterwards, she became a stranger who can no longer offer explanations for her secret betrayals.

After learning of his wife's unfaithfulness, he went off an unlikely quest of finding his wife's lover to tell him that she would soon be dead - so he could go and see her one last time to say his goodbyes. He knew, from his wife's confidant, that she truly loved this other guy, and it seemed like the right thing to do. I mean, she was ready to leave Matt for him so it must have been something special. The second huge moment of anagnorisis came when Matt discovered that Brian Speer, his wife's lover, is actually a real estate agent looking to make an obscene amount of profit when Matt decides to sell his ancestral land on Kaua'i. Up till that point, the overarching plot of the land deal was just a background element, one which Matt approves of wholeheartedly - until it suddenly became deeply personal.

The third point of revelation was subtler, and it came when Matt finally confronts Brian Speer and found out that Speer thought of his relationship with Matt's wife as nothing more than a fling, and that he already has a family which he was deadly afraid of jeopardising. Once again, how Matt sees his dearly departing wife flips on its side, and she changed from a lying cheat to a lonely, neglected spouse, looking for love in a wrong place - and I (and Matt) felt sorry for her. It was a masterstroke of storytelling, and though it didn't have the pomp and glamour of a twist like that of The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, it sent the same chill down my spine.

There are many smaller, but no less significant moments of anagnorises peppered throughout the movie, and two came immediately to mind. One was Sid, Matt's teenage daughter's socially-retarded friend, who was inexplicably tagging along on Matt's strange little errand. He was the impossibly odd, screwball character comic relief that seemed to be far more at home in an annoyingly quirky indie film than in a meditative family drama like The Descendants - and he was so stupid and rude that we in the audience (and Matt) couldn't understand why his daughter could even tolerate having him around. Essentially, he was one-note and out-of-place. When we learned that Nick's father recently passed away in an drunk driving auto accident (both drivers were drunk) and his mother had been trying to keep the family together, all of a sudden, it makes sense why Alex (Matt's daughter) hangs out with him. She identified with him, and just as unexpectedly: Matt with Sid's mother.

The other was of Matt's disapproving father-in-law (played by Robert Forster), who is of the opinion that his precious little girl could have done better than marry Matt who he considers to be neglectful and scroogey - and he never missed any opportunities in letting Matt knows that. In fact, he went as far as to blame Elizabeth's accident on Matt, saying that it wouldn't have happened if he bought her her own boat. It was incredibly difficult for me to watch Elizabeth's father verbally abuse Matt while singing praises of his little girl (and at one point, he even described her as "faithful"). It would have been intensely satisfying if Matt had exploded and call out the old man by letting him know of Elizabeth's infidelity - but he stoically never did. And when we peeked through the doors through Matt's eyes as he saw his father-in-law looking at his broken, emaciated daughter and looking lost, we are glad that Matt didn't.

The film ended in a scene I swear I had seen in another film - but cannot remember which. Matt was sitting on a couch with his two daughters, sharing a blanket and watching the documentary March of the Penguins which I recognised from Morgan Freeman's commentary. It was almost too apt. It's a father and his kids - and an absent mother - weathering their own little Antartic storm on the beautiful islands of Hawaii.

Addendum: I just found out that The Descendants won Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards on Sunday. Glad it did.

Didn't expect to like this film as much,
k0k s3n w4i


sniper said...

This film reminded me - I once had an affair with a married woman - mother of 3 kids - cos I was lonely with no gal to hold onto and call out her name in the abyss of depressive darkness ... etc etc but I wouldn't marry her cos I reason - if she can cheat on her hubby, she can also cheat on me with another stud. So am I cynical? callous? self-preserving bastard? carnal opportunist? Doctor, diagnose me & write me a prescription to ease my conscience.

Liz said...

Ahaha, I didn't like this movie much when I watched it, but by golly, when I read your review, I half-wished I did! It sounds good ;)

k0k s3n w4i said...

sniper: i dated someone who cheated on her boyfriend once. i don't have much to say on the subject besides telling you that i know what it was like.

Liz: well, if that is so then i had done my job right. a proper film review aims to put a perspective on the subject that a reader might not have considered when they watched it.