The Descendants: Playing it too safe

Unlike Sam Mendes, who in films like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, evokes desperation and makes you uncomfortable, this film is ultimately just floss.

Aakshi Magazine Delhi 

The problem with The Descendants is its sense of politics. The film works when it is talking of sentiments --  love, betrayal and relationships. It doesn’t when it tries to philosophise on colonialism. The title of the film suggests the filmmaker saw this angle as important as the other, but in how it unfolds it never links up with the upheaval happening in the lives of an American family living in Hawaii.  

Matt King (George Clooney) is struggling with myriad problems: his wife has gone into coma after a boat accident, and he has just discovered that she was having an affair. He has to also deal with his two growing daughters, who he doesn't know how to handle. During the same time, he has to make a decision regarding the huge tracts of land that his extended family has inherited from their coloniser ancestors.  

The idea that the survivors of the colonisers who once ruled over Hawaii, have to make a decision today about whether or not to let the new colonisers -- the real estate developers -- take over is interesting. But it is never dealt with clearly enough for you to make sense of it like this. And the idea of inheriting land and its violent history is never there, instead it is even romanticised. This theme seems completely dispensable and you wonder why it is there in the film.

The film handles the wife's infidelity without judgement. And has just the right measure of sentimentality  

The film handles the wife's infidelity without judgement. And has just the right measure of sentimentality -- for instance when the young kid is told that her mother is going to die, the shock and fear on her face is enough, no dialogue is needed. And when the kids are saying their final goodbyes to her, you are thankful that they are only shown going into the mother’s room but what actually transpires is left to the imagination. Clooney acts well -- he is clumsy, awkward, unsure. So do the other actors. What works is the aptness of the casting; you feel they can only be who they are on screen, especially the three kids - the two girls and the boyfriend. 

Unlike a director like Sam Mendes, who in films like American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, evokes desperation and makes you uncomfortable, this film is ultimately just floss. It does not lead you to a place that will make you uncomfortable, or complicate your idea of relationships. That way, director Alexander Payne plays it too safe. 

The film, though, is well made and has a slow charm to it, nonetheless. And Hawaii is shot in a beautiful and evocative manner. But, despite the emotions it evokes, it doesn’t stay with you. You leave the dark of the cinema hall, and it’s gone.