Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Descendants: A Lesson in Christian Love

Despite my trepidation about unduly influencing the Academy’s choice for Best Picture, here is the The Catholic Left’s first foray into film review.

King and his daughters are a motley crew.

Alexander Payne’s beautiful film, The Descendants, is a profound tale of redemption, forgiveness, and selfless love, making its themes apt for Christian viewers—and for anyone else. But don't yawn yet.
The story is predicated upon lawyer Matt King’s recent discovery that his comatose wife had been having an affair with an unknown man—this is after learning that she is about to die. King (played effortlessly by George Clooney) now needs to summon the strength to shepherd his two unruly daughters through the process of saying goodbye to their mother while he simultaneously chooses a buyer for his extended family’s substantial Hawaiian landholdings.
Without giving away any crucial details, a brief sketch of a few moments from this film illustrates the touching, yet utterly un-sentimentalized manner in which Payne treats this emotionally laden material.
Payne knows a lot about the complexities of human behavior—and that traumatic epochs in our lives can achieve there own weird normalcy very quickly. Early in the film, we see that King has brought files and papers with him to his wife’s hospital room. While contemplating his past mistakes and resolving to make his marriage better, he’s seemingly logging quite a few hours of work. At some level, anyway, life goes on.
In the same room, his ten-year-old playfully prances about her mother’s hospital bed. Oddly carefree, she’s become used to seeing her there; for now, there’s no apparent grief or anxiety. Few directors would portray a young girl’s reaction to such tragedy in such an unexpected and understated way, but it comes across as quite authentic.
In a later scene, the hapless father strolls with his daughters down a conspicuously idyllic Hawaiian beach, seeking out the man who has cuckolded him (to do who-knows-what). A mélange of conflicting, wrenching emotions has been simmering inside of him, sometimes boiling over. But when the younger daughter, who is oblivious to the affair, asks him what his first impression of her mother was, King doesn’t skip a beat: “She knocked me out,” he says with conviction. It’s an unexpectedly happy memory of a woman who’s caused King enormous pain, and so typical of this strange and beautiful movie.

As the comatose woman’s death draws near, King’s father-in-law angrily lets King know that his daughter deserved better than he provided. He doesn’t know that it’s a defense she doesn’t exactly deserve. The dramatic irony is tender. We feel deeply for the father-in-law, even if he’s wrong. King’s magnanimous response (which I won’t share) is priceless.
The secondary conflict, centered on his cousins’ desire to become rich off the sale of their land, is more formulaic but still skillfully told. King's growing awareness of the meaning of the land in question is inextricably bound up with his journey as grieving husband and father.
This is in no outward way a religious film, but the main characters undeniably experience spiritual growth. You’ll have to see the film to find out more, but suffice it to say it’s not earned easily.
            The Descendants is a heart-wrenching movie, but I left the theater in high spirits meditating upon its many laudable traits: gorgeous cinematography, a great ensemble performance, a soundtrack with lilting Hawaiian melodies, and a remarkably honest portrayal of deeply flawed human beings becoming imperfectly heroic for one other.
            In short, The Descendants embodies the illogical, transcendent love that is at the heart of being Christian. It's well worth seeing.

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