Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Dissecting A(nother) Scene From The Descendants

It is a scene I have referenced in other reviews and essays, a scene I have so frequently referenced because I can recall no scene in recent cinema (or the visual arts in general) that so quickly, precisely, emphatically, and brilliantly demonstrates the makeup of a family and how its members can be strikingly alike and different and loving and resentful at once. Truly, it is astonishing. Here’s why…


Matt (George Clooney), Alex (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) enter the hospital to visit, respectively, their wife and mother. This is Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie). In the wake of the opening scene – a glimpse of Elizabeth perched on the back of a motorboat in Honolulu Bay – she has been left in a coma, her life support machine turned off. Matt, his appearance harried, politely asks the girls to wait in the hall. He'd like a moment with their Mom alone. They oblige. He enters his wife's room, closes the door and pulls the curtain behind and just in front of the door shut. He turns to his wife. He has a few things to say. He commences.


Matt: "You were gonna ask me for a divorce so you could be with some fucking fuckhead, Brian Speer? Are you kidding me? Who are you? The only thing I know for sure is you're a goddamn liar."

I’ve talked about the film’s brilliant employment of cursing (as in, people aren’t just cursing for the sake of cursing) before, but this just another example of it – how Matt routinely curses and then can’t quite figure out why his daughters routinely curse.

Matt: "So what do you have to say for yourself? Make a little joke? Tell me that I got it all wrong." Now he leans in close, really close. She looms in the forefront of her shot. "Tell me again that I'm too out of touch with my own feelings and I need to go to therapy. Isn't the idea of marriage to make your partner's way in life a little easier? For me, it was always harder with you, and you're still making it harder. Now you're on that ventilator and fucking up my life. You are relentless. You know I was going to ask you for a divorce someday."

Very rarely in this film is Matt actually afforded ethical high ground. He is not the most compassionate person. This is not to say he is a mean-spirited person – he’s not – but merely person with a few glaring and problematic flaws (humans, I think they call them). He is not a doting father – and admits it – and had become less than an attentive husband – and admits it – and, yet, while there are understandable reasons for his spouse wanting to take solace in an affair it’s still, you know, an affair. But even then Matt can’t leave his old ways behind, can’t stop being a selfish jerk, can’t stop being an immature jerk.

Immaturity. It’s a pall cast over the entire King family. This is not, however, the immaturity of Team Apatow, video games and bong hits and such. This is the immaturity skulking about within any mature adult, how even a successful real estate lawyer and descendant of Hawaiian royalty suffers in part from emotional stuntment. Which is what makes it so perfect when he picks up and hurls across the room his wife’s teddy bear – put on display, I suspect, to render good tidings – and dismissively declares “Daddy’s little girl”, both an item and a term meant to evoke……immaturity.


Now Matt lets his daughters in the room. Scottie is eager. Alex is reluctant, maybe even angry. "Hi, mom," she finally says, "sorry for being bad." Oh. Well. Maybe not angry? Maybe forgiving? She continues: "Sorry for wasting your money on private expensive schools when you could have been using it on facials and massages and sports equipment." Nope. She's angry. And not forgiving. Her voice rises. "And sorry we weren't good enough for you. Especially Dad." Matt: "Stop it. That's outta line."

Alex: "What?! Are you gonna ground me?! Are you gonna ship me off to another boarding school?! Give me a time out?!" 
Matt grabs her. Spanks her (yes, actually spanks her, though rather reluctantly.)
Matt: "Goddamn it."

So…the husband just spent his face-to-face time with his wife telling her off. Now the oldest daughter is spending her face-to-face time with her mom telling her off. As in, the oldest daughter possesses the father’s own attributes, and the father scolds her for it while failing to realize his own failure to set an example.

Scottie: "You got served!" 
Matt: "Scottie, go wait in the hall." 
Scottie: "She's the one who's outta line." 
Matt: "Go find Sid." 
Scottie: "He's smoking! I shouldn't be around secondhand smoke." 

Ah, and so too does Alex’s failure to set an example for Scottie result in Scottie’s confrontational attitude and immaturity. (Father → Oldest Daughter → Youngest Daughter.)

Alex: "Did you just spank me?" 
Matt: "You have no right to talk to you mother that way.” But he, of course, does. “She's going to die in a few days. Those could be your last words." 
Alex: "I have every right to speak that way to her. I'm angry at her. How can you be so forgiving?"
Matt: "I'll be angry later. Right now let's just think about the good parts.” Which, of course, he has not been thinking of. “And don't say that stuff in front of your sister. Say something different."

Alex weighs her Dad's "order."

Alex: "Look, Mom, I know that we fought. I always wanted to be like you. I am like you. I'm exactly like you." 

In a film filled with masterstrokes, this one is the most masterly. I wish I could convey in my archaic blogging verbiage how Woodley communicates that last line – begrudgingly, admiringly. “I’m EXACTLY like you.” Alex’s mother/Matt’s wife never speaks in the film. Not once. It’s brave to have so many characters talk about another character without giving the targeted character an opportunity to respond. There are critics who would argue this choice actually constitutes the exact opposite of bravery. But the more I consider “The Descendants”, the more I realize this viewpoint is entirely wrong. Alex may be angry at her mother but she is her mother’s daughter. And so, in a very real way, Elizabeth is present and speaking the entire movie, she’s just present and speaking through Alex.

In the confrontations father and daughter have you can catch a glimmer of the confrontations husband and wife must have had. At the same time, you can catch a glimmer of what two combustible personas can do when they align – such as in those moments when father and daughter unite to act as amateur detectives to find and confront that fucking fuckhead Brian Speer.

Matt: "You are like her. Mostly, I guess. Maybe in some bad ways. Remains to be seen." 

You wonder, don’t you? You wonder if Alex will take heed from the examples her mother and father failed to set. But then you wonder some more, and as you do you can almost make out a mental image of a futuristic Alex riding recklessly on the back of a motorboat in choppy waves with a smile on her face and the wind in her hair. Remains to be seen.

2 comments:

Shane Slater said...

Great piece Nick.

Nick Prigge said...

Hey, thanks man! Appreciate it! Loved writing it!