The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne and starring George Clooney, is one of the best films of 2011. Set in the loveliness of Hawaii, and filled with Hawaiian music, it tells the story of an uninvolved father who suddenly has to take over the care of his two young daughters.
As we see too often, big studio films run as very formulaic machines. I don’t believe The Descendants is actually an independent film, but it has the integrity and originality of one. It has the thematic cohesiveness of an Ibsen play.
In the 1850’s, the great playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen did an intensive study of the Icelandic sagas. These sagas used what is known as ring composition. A word or phrase reappears throughout a narrative poem, each instance with a newly developed meaning.
This study informed many of Ibsen’s later plays. In The Pillars of Society, written in 1877, the term “pillars of society” originally referred to the prominent politicians and businessmen who are in reality dangerous to society. Later in the play, this term describes the brave women who rise up against corruption. At the play’s end, however, the “pillars” are seen as the principles of Truth and Freedom.
Similarly, in An Enemy of the People, an 1882 play that, like Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, deals with environmental issues, Ibsen uses a ring composition method of sorts. A physician employed by a spa realizes that the waters the spa relies on are being polluted by local industry. Later in the work, the pollution morphs into humanity’s reliance on old and often inferior ideas.
The Descendants has a similar cohesiveness. Clooney’s character is an attorney who manages lands located on the island of Kauai. His relatives, who also are beneficiaries of the trust owning the lands, are pushing him to sell the lands to a developer. But while these properties were inherited from his native Hawaiian ancestors, Clooney, until late in the movie, favors the sale.
At the same time, Clooney’s character must deal with a family crisis. His wife is in a coma from a boating accident, and he now strives to act as a parent to the daughters he has neglected. So while he wrestles with his responsibilities toward the lands of his ancestors, he has to finally confront his responsibilities as a parent.
Clooney does his usual excellent job as an actor, but Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, as his daughters, come close to stealing the movie from him. Beau Bridges also does a strong turn as a cousin who is pushing the attorney to sell the lands.
Clooney has of late been quite discerning in his choice of films. Up in the Air was one of the most thought-provoking films of recent years, and The Ides of March is one of the highlights of the current year. The Ides of March, a dark tale of political corruption, is based on the stage play Farragut North. by Beau Willimon. Willimon learned much from his work on the respective campaigns of Chuck Shumer, Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean.
Farragut North/The Ides of March does necessary work in showing us the corruption of reality. But it is a tale told by a young man. It is not enough merely to show us what is wrong. The Descendants goes beyond that in showing us what can be fixed. It is ultimately a story of healing and reconciliation.
Other filmmakers would do well to follow paths similar to those taken by the makers of The Descendants.