George Clooney stars in one of the best movies ever made about the death of a loved one.
by Litsa Dremousis
Love Lessons From… is a Nerve column in which Litsa Dremousis examines the love-and-sex themes of buzzy pop culture.
By the time this piece goes up, Oscar nominations will be out. And unless Academy voters are abducted in a Body Snatchers scenario, the finely etched, deeply moving, and surprisingly funny The Descendants will have garnered the nominations it deserves for Best Actor (George Clooney as attorney and father Matt King), Best Director (Alexander Payne), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture.
Yes, we know the value of art is subjective and it's pointless to compare creations, but it's an American tradition, so unless you're a communist, let's discuss why The Descendants is aching and brilliant in its depiction of the loss we'll all face, if we haven't already. No, not the loss of multi-million dollar Hawaii real estate, but the death of a partner. Think of the person you love more than any other and who returns that love. (College freshmen, you're exempt: you won't even have that person's number by the time you graduate.) If you and the aforementioned individual stay together, eventually you will bury them or they will bury you. (Or perhaps you will die simultaneously in a meteor shower. Because life crackles with myriad possibilities.)
At the start of The Descendants, King's wife (Patricia Hastie) sustains a massive cranial injury in a speedboating accident. She is comatose, on a ventilator, and her doctors determine she is permanently vegetative. She has a Do Not Resuscitate order in her will, and King, as an attorney, knows this is the end. What he doesn't know, and what his oldest daughter (Shailene Woodley, another possible nominee) must tell him in a wrenching confrontation, is that Mom was having an affair. It's a testament to the film's verisimilitude and nuance that we believe anyone would cheat on a millionaire-attorney version of George Clooney, who, even in dad-wear, remains eminently fuckable. But let's set aside the affair problem (a version of which some will face but most won't) and focus on how King reacts to his wife's imminent death.
First, there's King's extreme shock, which some of us know from experience is right on the money. Everything he knew about life is now upended. Then, he faces the gauntlet of having to tell all concerned parties and absorb their shock — and, often, their misdirected anger. Because in a society that largely (and stupidly) thinks it can outwit death, if you're the one who tells people your partner is dead, you become a reminder of what looms for them. And some, like King's father-in-law (Robert Forster), will mistake the bearer of bad news for the one who caused it. (If someone tells you their partner is dead, do not react this way. As their shock and grief subside, they will want to shoot billiards with your eyeballs.) And, of course, King must now become the sole parent to his offspring, an arduous task, I'm told, even when one isn't permanently consigned to their worst nightmare.
All of which makes The Descendants that much more laudable for closing on a believably hopeful note. The Kings, scarred, will never be the same, but they will prevail. Not because The Descendants tacks on some bullshit Hollywood ending, but because it treats its characters like real people. And while death will get the final word, under the right circumstances, life still has much to say.
Litsa Dremousis' work appears in The Believer, Esquire, Huffington Post, Jezebel, McSweeney's, MSN Music, The A.V. Club, on NPR, and in sundry other venues. She is completing her first novel. On Twitter: @LitsaDremousis. She archives her previously published work at http://theslipperyfish.blog