Alexander Payne is a master of the American dramedy. In films noted for their acerbic dialogue and grounded sense of place, Payne’s acutely observed characters struggle to make sense of the commitments in their lives. In Citizen Ruth (1996), Payne explored the challenges of parenting; in Election (1999), of civic responsibility; in About Schmidt (2002), of familial responsibility; and in Sideways (2004), of friendship. His latest (2011) film The Descendants, adapted from a novel of the same name by the Hawaiian writer Kaui Hart Hemmings, won Payne his second best-adapted-screenplay Oscar. What sets this film apart from his previous work is how Payne has heightened the stakes of his protagonist’s actions. In The Descendants, Matt King has responsibilities as husband, parent, son-in-law, friend, neighbor, citizen of Hawaii, descendant, and even as a member of creation. Never before has Payne drawn such a complex, interconnected, moral landscape.
Matt (played by George Clooney) has a lot on his plate. His wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has been in a boating accident, leaving her in a coma from which she will never recover. Matt is left to care for their two daughters, ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and seventeen-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley)—a real challenge since Matt confesses via narration that he has always been “the back-up parent, the understudy.” Matt also needs to share the news about Elizabeth’s imminent passing with the family and friends who love her. One of these persons, Matt discovers, is Elizabeth’s lover. On top of all of this, Matt is the trustee of his family’s 25,000 acres of untouched, pristine Hawaiian land, and while the family needs to make a decision about selling the land, Matt has the final say.
This would be a lot of responsibility for anyone to handle, but it is even harder for Matt because he has isolated himself emotionally, leading an imbalanced, self-centered, workaholic life. Matt admits to this when he pleads with his comatose wife, “If you’re doing this to get my attention Liz, it’s working. I’m ready now. I’m ready to talk. I’m ready to change. I’m ready to be a real husband and a real father. Just wake up.” Matt has been in denial about his commitments to spouse and children, but the denial bleeds into other commitments— to extended family, neighbor, country, and natural world. Throughout the film, Matt struggles to reconcile the differences between his identity and his actions. As Charles Taylor suggests, modern identity “is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand” (1989, 27). The Descendants is the story of a man moving out of an isolated, autonomous existence to embrace life as interconnected and relational. Matt broadens first to understand how his identity is shared with his family, then with his wider circle of acquaintances, and eventually with the entirety of creation.
It is clear from the beginning that Matt is disconnected from his wife Elizabeth. Matt explains via narration at his wife’s bedside, “When I heard about the accident and about the coma, I wasn’t even in town. I was on Maui on business and we hadn’t spoken in three days. In a way, we hadn’t spoken in months.” Matt does not get a second chance to be a husband to Elizabeth, but he does get another chance with his daughters. At first, he flounders in the role of parent. When Scottie exhibits inappropriate behavior in school, the school counselor asks Matt, “Have you been engaging Scottie in really talking about everything that is going on? Encouraging her to express her feelings?” He nods, half listening, and then, walking out of the school with Scottie, instead of trying to learn something about her feelings, he barks at her, “What’s the matter with you?” No moment is more telling than when Matt asks Alex what to do with Scottie. She responds insightfully—to spend more time with her, to go camping with her—but Matt cuts her off. Instead of listening to Alex’s good advice, he decides now is the time to tell Alex about her mom’s condition. Matt’s road with his daughters is not an easy one. Throughout the film, he struggles to communicate openly with them. Although he does not seem to make much progress in this regard, he is at least trying. The final image of the film, of Matt and his daughters covered with their mother’s blanket, suggests that Matt’s loving presence is the most important gift he can give them.
Beyond the challenge of reconnecting with his daughters, Matt also struggles to deal kindly with the type of people that many of us would rather not have in our lives at all: those who challenge and frustrate us. His stepfather Scott (Robert Forster) belittles and guilts him; his daughter’s friend Sid (Nick Krause) is insensitive and annoying. It would be easy for Matt to dismiss these people, to put them in boxes: to label Scott, as Sid calls him, “a prick,” or to label Sid “an idiot” or “a stoner.” Matt agrees with Sid’s labeling of Scott behind Scott’s back and shows contempt for Sid to Sid’s face; however, Payne never lets Matt off the hook. Peering through the open door of Elizabeth’s hospital room, Matt sees Scott grieve over his daughter, affectionately caring for her, kissing her. We see Scott mouth the words, “I love you” to her. Scott is not just “a prick”; he is a loving father. During a late night conversation with Sid, Matt finds out that Sid has just lost his father a few months ago. Though Sid wears a weak smile as he shares the news, Sid’s pain lingers underneath the expression. Sid is not “an insensitive idiot”; he is a grieving son. Drawn as emotionally complex human beings with their own feelings and needs, Scott and Sid show Matt that they deserve his respect and care.
Perhaps the most challenging person that comes into Matt’s life is Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the man with whom his wife was having an affair. Late in the film, Matt finds himself face to face with Brian. He has enlisted Alex to help him with the confrontation. They have discovered that Brian has a family, a wife and two boys. While the rest of Brian’s family is occupied, Matt and Alex trap Brian. First they speak to each other about their first impressions right in front of him. With venom in her voice, Alex asks Matt, “This is him? Why would she go for him?” As the two lay it on, we naturally side with Matt and Alex against Brian; however, Payne complicates this situation too. Brian seems like a sincere guy when he apologizes. There is no soundtrack to direct our interpretation of what is happening. When Brian looks back at his wife in the kitchen, we realize the effect this confrontation might have on his family. It becomes clear that Brian loves his wife and family. Matthew Lillard, usually known for his comedic roles, effectively draws a picture of this complicated family man—honest, sensitive, devoted to wife and children, yet confused, conflicted in his actions in keeping a secret life.
What to do with Brian Speer? What is a proper moral response? Matt doesn’t react well to him; in fact, on the way out he kisses Brian’s wife, Julie (Judy Greer). While we want to give Matt the benefit of the doubt, it is hard not to see this action as childish and unwarranted, especially considering that Julie is also a victim of Brian’s secret life. Do we want Matt to forgive Brian at this point? Perhaps it is too much to expect such a selfless act. Yet our growing sympathy toward Brian poses the question: how can I honor and care for my neighbor when my neighbor has hurt me? Matt could tear this family apart. Further, Alex and Sid are looking on as Matt makes decisions about what to do with Brian. Alex and Sid are learning how to act in such confusing situations. Are they learning from their father that revenge is an appropriate response to being hurt?
Matt’s sense of responsibility toward the natural world is tested by the decision he must make about his family’s land. As the trustee, Matt holds the final say. In one scene, Matt, Alex, Scottie, Sid, and one of Matt’s cousins survey the family’s land from a lookout point on Kauai. They discuss the potential sale and wax nostalgic about time spent camping on the land. Matt drops a comment about giving the land up: “Everything has its time.” The comment has a ring of wisdom to it until one thinks about how it depends on one’s perspective. What does Matt know about time? What does any human know about time as it plays out in nature? Cutting to a long shot above the group, Payne leaves their conversation; he slowly swings the camera away from their vantage point and out over the land—a valley framed by rugged hills, verdant trees, and the ocean. The sounds of the wind and of birds singing swallow up any further conversation that the family might be having. This land knows about time better than any human does. This change of perspective leads us to ask a question: What right do the Kings have to give up this land to people who would exploit it?
Payne does his best to slow down the pace of his human drama by inserting a number of transitional shots of nature between emotionally charged scenes. Take, for example, the two shots placed after an emotional hospital scene where Scott shows affection for his daughter. One is of the sun peeking through the clouds to shine on a forested hillside. The other is of green plants reaching up to the sky as stormy clouds are on the move above. It is a reflective time allowing viewers to take in the full weight of the narrative, or perhaps briefly to forget narrative altogether. These transitional shots are reminiscent of a type of shot used by the Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu called “pillow shots.” These are shots that, like their corollary “pillow words” in Zen Buddhist poetry, do not lead out of or into the whole of the film but give a place of rest, a pause. Human figures and human stories are dislocated from the center of the universe for a brief moment. In their stead, oceans, trees, clouds, and rivers move into the fore. This is nature for nature’s sake; God’s creation having worth on its own terms, not in terms of what it does for us. Given this de-centering, we are invited to take a broader perspective on our place within the natural world. We are not above creation; we are part of it.
Payne’s The Descendants is a needed corrective to our American culture. As Carolyn T. Brown suggests in her essay on reimagining the American Dream, there is this rut, this gap “so many of us experience between who we are and what we do,” which testifies to “conditions embedded broadly in the contemporary experience” (2005, 54). Many forces in our society—political, economic, religious—pit us against one another and turn us inward. Americans prize economic autonomy and emotional independence; however, as Americans, and as family members, friends, neighbors, and as created beings made in the image of God, we are caught in a network of commitments and identifications in which we are called to take a stand. Perhaps the most helpful thing Payne can do is offer up Matt’s life as a mirror to our own. As Matt’s many moral dilemmas unfold, we begin to see how his actions have consequences, first on an intimate familial level, then moving outward to acquaintances and the natural world. The first step is awareness. Though Matt does not always do the right thing, Payne does not let us judge him. Instead, we are called to examine our own lives. We are not alone.
Tyler Beane is currently pursuing an MDiv at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Brown, Carolyn T., “Footprints of the Soul: Uniting Spirit with Action in the World.” In Deepening the American Dream: Reflections on the Inner Life and Spirit of Democracy, Mark Nepo, ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005.
Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.