The Descendants is a curious film. Well acted, intricate, and visually quite beautiful, at times it still feels bloated, empty, strangely vacuous: a big hollow ship with bright sails intended to distract you from the fact that there are holes in the floorboards.


The star the ship sails by is Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie), a wife and mother of two who lies in a coma after an accident. The other characters – shmucky husband Matt King (George Clooney), teenaged daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and her younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller), and Elizabeth’s father Thorson (Robert Forster) – try to penetrate Elizabeth’s life, to know what she means to them, as they watch her fade away.


At the same time, Matt is negotiating a land deal which will transfer millions of dollars of prime Hawaiian real estate from his extended family to land developers. Descendents of a Hawaiian princess and the white man she fell in love with and married, Matt’s family trust is dissolving with the deal. Although Matt finds himself in the middle of this drama, he is also oddly outside of it, a victim of historic circumstances the same as Elizabeth.


When Matt discovers his wife had been having an affair, he chases her lover from one island to another in an attempt to know what she meant to him. Dogged by his daughter Alexandra, who seems less perversely curious at the turn of events than genuinely angry, Matt invariably ends up rediscovering not just the wife who is lost to him, but his love for the land he wishes to sell.


Like Elizabeth, Matt’s forefathers haunt him. They represent both the man he could have been – the husband who could have been fully present rather than the man who ran from his wife’s passions; the family patriarch who knows what is worth preserving rather than the petty bureaucrat who shuffles papers from desk to desk – yet where he fails to break through to his wife, he does reawaken an ancient memory for the land.


He cannot bring his wife back to him and his pursuit of her lover is strange and creepy, especially when the chase ends in a mirror. The lover is Matt’s double. What do you do when you discover that your wife has left you for you?


Matt retreats to the deathbed, the final sign of fidelity. It is he who will stand vigil over the dying body, showing that love is stronger than desire, stronger even than death.


Unfortunately for the doomed romantic, Elizabeth’s real man has already moved in. Her dad has created a shrine around her dying middle-aged body, a collection of trophies, plaques, and achievement ribbons from her childhood. While Matt may need to pick at the body, follow clues back into her lover’s bed, Thorson has the guts to call a spade a spade, even if it isn’t.


A man’s man – the only one in the film – Thorson is a strange example for Matt. Because although Thorson has no qualms defining the body in front of him, making sense of Elizabeth’s life, he is also utterly wrong, incapable of accepting the woman she had become and instead has trapped her in a memory of her as a young girl.


It’s weird that Matt rediscovers his own manly ability to name, define and claim the world only after seeing what a jackass Thorson is…

At its heart, The Descendants is about the loss and rediscovery of the man, not the woman. The woman (Elizabeth) is gone, spoiled, ruined by passion. Like the once beautiful islands of Hawaii, her resources spent on cheap thrills, Elizabeth is powerless, a thing to be acted upon. Even fighting her lover would not return her to Matt.


But fighting for the pristine shoreline his ancestors promised him may restore the man in full. He doesn’t have to let it go to seed, let other men enjoy it before he acts, and the final scenes of the film show the king returned and the land in balance.


The body reduced to beach sand, the ceremonies concluded in a coronation, The Descendent now reclaims his place in the center of the couch, an emperor of ice cream. And although the film has some great gestures it just seems like much ado about not much.


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