Thursday, April 19, 2012

Complex Bereavements: The Descendants

I am in middle-age and people are dying around me at a rather alarming rate.  I've reached the stage in life where I'm invited to more funerals than weddings.  At least once a month, someone I know loses a parent. It's the circle of life.

Losing a spouse in middle age is another story and it has happened to a few people I know through death as well as those awful, mid-life crisis divorces.  We expect to lose our parents around now, not our partners. The shock and grief can feel catastrophic.

This is the situation George Clooney's character Matt King finds himself thrown into in Alexander Payne's fine film, "The Descendants".

King's wife Elizabeth is one of those spoiled Daddy's girls you meet in clubhouses around the world.  Forty-five going on fifteen, she's a life-time addict to that preferred cocktail of certain members of the privileged classes: a mix of booze, money, too much free time, ennui and its attendant addiction to cheap thrills and attention-seeking behaviour.  The combination has finally led to the inevitable disaster:  a water-skiing accident that has put her in a coma. 

Clooney plays a kind of person I see often in life, though seldom in a film: the man whose sense of self is defined by holding it together while everyone around him is falling apart.  Sadly, this containment is usually achieved at the expense of holding his own emotions and the emotions of everyone dear to him at a considerable remove. When all else fails, he goes jogging or gets on a plane.

Payne, who has written, among other scripts, "Sideways" has made a wonderfully nuanced film about a middle-aged man bruised by love's caprices and suddenly subsumed by emotions he's long held at bay with work, work-outs and duty.

The scion of a family of wealthy, hereditary landowners, the appropriately named Matt King is the only member of  his large, upper-crust clan who is not a ne'er do well subsisting on the remnants of unearned privilege and squandered trust funds.  Instead, he has a real estate law practice and manages what's left of the family land in Hawaii.

His reasons are sound:  someone has to go to work and someone has to be able to think straight but his family's emotional needs have been badly neglected.  He's so out of touch with what's going on in his own home he hasn't noticed his wife is having an affair.  It falls to Alexandra, his teen-aged daughter to tell him.

Every woman in King's life is having a melt-down:  his eleven-year old Scottie is throwing lawn chairs into the pool, his spoiled wife is in love with a ponce of a real-estate agent and his eldest daughter is drinking hard and sleeping with stoners.

Shailene Woodly as Alexandra gives a terrific performance as a bottle-rocket of rage, grief and neglect. Her mother has been too busy drinking and screwing around at the clubhouse to pay her much attention and her dad is always at the office.  She's been shipped off to boarding school but nothing is going to keep her away from the kind of flamboyant trouble kids get into when they're starved for attention and only get it by being self-destructive.

The accident with its ensuing revelations about what has actually been going on with his family has finally turned the emotional tables on King.  For the first time in his life, he finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to figure out what is going on inside the head of his suddenly unavailable partner.  He's the centre of a hurricane of his own overwhelming feelings and he's at a dead loss.

In the end, King realizes what he must do in order to attend to all he has been entrusted with. He must truly give of himself:  to live a life aligned with his real values, offer his protection not to the cabal of leeches in his extended family but to the land that has made them all wealthy and to his daughters who need his love, his affection, his time, his true feelings and his open and unguarded presence.

This is a film well worth watching.  If you missed it in theatres this past winter, rent it at a video store near you.

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