The Descendants, the latest of Alexander Payne’s gender-blending inspections of American life, departs in a significant way from his other films. In Payne’s other films (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways), his protagonists move gracelessly through their middle-class lives, struggling with their self-deceptions. In The Descendants, protagonist Matt King (George Clooney) is a gloriously-wealthy Hawaiian land heir who works diligently as a non-descript lawyer. His most significant flaw is his passivity.
Rather than being about driving through problems or overcoming demons, The Descendants is about observing and contemplating about how to abide by a life of blessing, albeit one recently confronted by a tragic development- Kings finds out not only that his wife has entered into a irreversible coma as a result of a boating accident, but that she was cheating on him. Almost immediately after finding out the news from his spirited daughter, Matt King postures himself as a man open to the world, one who earnestly ponders what’s “right” to do. Not what fear, or selfishness, or convenience drives him to do, but what is right to do.
In following Matt King’s handling of his life’s recent developments—in addition to his wife’s accident, King’s family is going to lose control of their hereditary 25,000 acre plot in seven years if they don’t sell to a new party, and Matt King is the signatory heir to the plot—The Descendants is an exploration of what it means to be a gentleman. It is an exploration of combining the qualities of being gentle- respectful, graceful, and patient- with being a man- declarative, assertive, and principled. How much of each of these two words should be combined to make the ideal gentleman? Should he be more gentle or more man?
I would argue that the proper “gentleman” ratio depends on the climate of the culture, and that Matt King is more gentle than man. After all, his biggest flaw is being too passive in his life. Along with admittedly not taking an active enough role in his family, Matt King doesn’t stand up for himself. He lets his father-in-law abuse him emotionally and is strongly guided by his daughter as he searches for the right course of action in the wake of his wife’s tragic death and the revealing of her affair. In addition, he decides not to sell the family plot of land to any of the commercially developers, choosing instead to find a way to keep the land in the family and undeveloped.
The Descendants is a remarkable film because it presents a unique narrative structure not only for Payne, but for all filmmakers. In nearly all films, protagonists confront obstructions, often internal in Payne’s case, to their happiness. As a gloriously wealthy man who’s biggest flaw, self-admittedly, has been his passivity in his family’s life, a flaw he has recently corrected upon learning about his wife’s accident, Matt King is free of the typical obstructions. This vacuum creates space for a different kind of story—the story of a free man seeking to be a custodian of the traditions that have preceded him and resulted in his blessed life.