Descendants is a film that attempts to operate on several layers at once. While it may be said to be allegorical in one sense (taking place on what is popularly presumed to be an island "paradise," where falls are experienced and redemptions are sought), the film by Alexander Payne may also be said to be a simple story about a father and husband who learns (on his wife's deathbed) that he is actually a cuckold. What follows is a two-hour experiment in tolerance, as both the viewer and the characters in the narrative become aware of exactly where their threshold of pain stands. That threshold is then pushed to its limits, as Payne drives home one twist of the screw after another. In a way, the film is about the weakness of man -- Matt King's inability to love his wife, to be there for his children; Brian Speer's inability to resist the advances of King's wife; the inability of the heirs of the land to resist the temptation to sell out; etc. Forgiveness comes, the viewer presumes, from the daughter (though we never see it explicitly); it comes, in a way, from the husband (though it is, for the most part, internalized); and finally from Mrs. Speers, whose forgiveness, however, is still mingled with hate (which, when exposed, prompts Matt King to usher her from the hospital bedside where she delivers her piece). The film has no easy answers -- but does wish to explore.
The theme of the film is one of pain -- personal suffering at the hands of short-sightedness from those appointed to raise us and at the hands of those who have elected to love and honor us. Although each of the main characters in the King family fail in some form or another, the final act of Matt King in refusing to sign over the land to the money men is viewed as the act of fidelity that he failed to fulfill in his marriage (through his negligence) and that his wife failed to fulfill to him (through her adultery).
And yet, typical of Payne, the narrative fails to have an answer to the suffering of the characters. King's way of dealing with it is burying it: he says goodbye to it -- literally. Mrs. Speers' way of dealing with it is to try to snuff it out through a kind of forgiveness, though we are led to suspect that she still has a long way to go before her forgiveness is total; the daughter's way of dealing with it is through a kind of adolescent stoicism -- a combination of angst and resignation and mimicry of adult seriousness. What kind of woman Mrs. King was, we never really know. We know her only through the reactions of those around her, and, as Payne reveals, those reactions are largely unreliable -- filtered through the hurt and suffering and resentment of years of neglect, mistrust and self-pity.
However, Payne does attempt to unearth the heart, which is not always perfect. The anger that the Kings feel and express contends with their love -- and while neither seems to win out, there does appear to be a kind of truce. The surviving Kings gather on the sofa and stare at the television in the same way that they stared at the dying mother/wife in the hospital. Had Payne constructed a black satire, the transference of their gaze from dying relation to television set would seem poignant -- but the moment is not meant to be satirical. One wonders whether it is meant to be heartwarming. It is neither -- and the viewer is left to contend with the anger, resentment, grief, and love (that the characters have expressed) on his own. Resolution and catharsis are not achieved with the Kings' farewells. Something more is needed. But Payne does not seem to have the answer.
As Roger Ebert (2011) states, "Payne's films are usually about people forced into difficult personal decisions," and The Descendants is just such a film. The difficult decision at the heart of the film is how to recover honesty -- both in business and in personal life. To be true to his Hawaiian ancestors, King risks offending his Cousin Hugh, who wants Matt to sell off the family land. To be true to his wife and daughters, King must make strides in covering ground that he has neglected to cover in the past. He brings with him some personal flaws, but he also has a desire to find the lover that has cuckolded him and somehow make things right.
Matt does find the lover -- but his motive (not quite clear initially) transforms into a kind of respect: he wants to offer the lover the chance to say goodbye to the dying woman. Speers, of course, does not take the opportunity -- but his wife, finally let into the secret, does take the opportunity. It is a sad moment, but it is a moment that cannot be deferred. The grief of everyone, even of the father-in-law, is brought into perspective by Mrs. King (a woman of vibrant character, we are led to believe from the opening shot of her skiing in the ocean just before her accident) -- a character who, perhaps, is in need of empathy and forgiveness.
Since the plot is mainly concerned with the dealing of pain, the arc of the characters follows their climb to new heights of maturity, responsibility, forgiveness, acceptance, and retribution. The oldest daughter, Alex, is drunk when first we meet her in the middle of the night (she is supposed to be in bed in her dorm). Drinking is her way of dealing with the secret that she knows. But when she is told that her mother (about whom the secret is concerned) is dying, all of her air is let out. Payne wisely films the revelation scene with the girl in the pool: she sinks below the water and screams inaudibly; it is beautiful and heart-wrenching and real. We witness several characters' hearts break -- from Matt's to his daughters' to his wife's best friend's to his father-in-law's. Their development is directly linked to the way in which they deal with their breaking hearts.
Matt is, of course, the main character. His grief stems at first from the fact that he thinks he is losing his wife. When his daughter reveals her secret (of the affair) to him, his grief stems from the fact that he had already lost her. His character develops and alters from the man who is all about business (and who opens the film by saying, "Fuck paradise") to a man who is all about family, ancestry, home, and saving that which can be saved. He does not sell out to the money men -- nor does he bury himself in his own grief. Instead, he reaches out to his daughters, who, we realize, are also in need of guidance and support. In fact, they all are. Finding that support is no easy task, and although the film does not end on any note of high encouragement, it at least does end with the sense that the characters all now must face themselves squarely -- which means allowing for the others that they have to some extent neglected. The closing scene is of Matt sharing the couch with his daughters. It is a moment that, we assume, has not transpired too many times in their lives.
Style and Editing
Payne's style of directing is fairly straight-forward. He does not pull any punches with reversals or narrative. He does not rely on diagetics or symbology to achieve an artistic vision. His primary concern is to document the pain that each character feels and then to show how they deal with it.
The film is edited by Kevin Tent (who has been nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the film). Kevin Tent reveals the procedure that he and Payne used when approaching the editing of the material shot in Hawaii: "Our process of late has been to watch dailies for a scene or a couple of scenes and then start cutting…On The Descendants [Alexander] was leaving one night and…said, 'You know what? Editing is the ongoing process of masking how bad your film is" (Philbrick, 2012). Payne's self-criticism may show the type of analysis and detachment he is able to give his work. But the style of the film, as Liz Braun (2011) states is not what one would call bad; indeed, she states that the film "has a jaunty, energetic air about it…just the thing to lure you into the heart of a family tragedy." That jauntiness is key -- without it, the film would feel flat and heavy. But Payne keeps the heart alive with wry flashes of humor. Sid, the young interest of Alex, provides moments of laughter -- and even he shows signs of dawning maturity in the end.