Initial thoughts on The Descendants

In February, I’ll be speaking at Seattle Pacific University about the films of 2011. I’ll also be appearing on Dick Staub’s Kindlings Muse live-podcast show to talk about the same subject.

What 2011 films showed us something new, challenging, and worth seeing many times? What movies showed us what we wanted to see, and told us what we wanted to hear, instead of giving us something that we really needed. What movies provided mere entertainment instead of art? What filled the screen with vision and poetry, and what just projected the faces of celebrities for our distraction and amusement?

To prepare, I’m seeing films that are likely to earn Oscar nominations. So today I saw Alexander Payne’s celebrated drama The Descendants.

Here are my first impressions… 

The Descendants is a story about a husband and a dad who starts thinking about the blessings (property, natural resources, a wife, children) that have been entrusted into his care. But is he thinking about these responsibilities too late? When the threat of losing one of them suddenly makes him reconsider all of them, can he turn things around and start demonstrating integrity and love and devotion?

Alexander Payne’s films are usually about men for whom it is almost too late to turn things around. But they’re also usually snarky, condescending, and they usually shove our faces into so much human ugliness that I walk away thinking about the director and his apparent “issues” more than I’m thinking about the movie.

This movie is the work of a humbler, less cynical storyteller. As a work of cinema, it’s not anything to shout about — I can’t think of any images in particular that will stick with me — but it’s pretty solid storytelling about conscience, the destruction wrought by neglect of family, the destruction wrought by infidelity, and the destruction wrought by a lack of respect for those who came before us and those who will come after. (In other words, let’s all hope that “the 1%” turn out for this movie.)

If the Oscars want to choose an emotional, mature, thoughtful drama… but they’re not brave enough to go for something particularly challenging or cinematic… this is probably what they’ll choose. They could do worse.

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