I have always wanted to go to Hawaii. Who doesn’t, right? Glass sand beaches adorned with sun-tanned and toned bodies. Deep waters as blue as a broken heart. Sunrises and sets like melted jewels poured down from the heavens. Ukuleles and luaus. Loose-fitting floral shirts as standard dress. Aloha, paradise, land of recreation and relaxation.
But except for the sunrises and sunsets, I’ve never wanted to go to Hawaii for any of the above reasons. I’ve wanted to go for the volcanoes. Deep beneath the lush surface of this archetypical archipelago boils the blood of mountains. The magma emerges from fissures in Hawaii’s surface and flows into the sea where it cools and hardens into new Hawaii. Active volcanoes exhibit the constant re-creation of the earth. It is a heated, harrowing process and anything but relaxing.
If it is anything, The Descendants is true to Hawaii. All of America’s island state seems to be captured here. The screen is so overgrown with tropical flora, one can almost taste the moist air. The soundtrack is similarly lush with mellow guitars and native song stylings. Compared to other more furious films, the pace of the film is as relaxed as an island getaway, and some viewers may call it “slow.” As with any vacation though, it takes a little bit of time to allow oneself to settle into a slower rhythm and enjoy oneself. That sort of relaxation is necessary though, I think, and The Descendants is, in a way, an invitation to rest.
Hawaii’s volcanoes are here too. The story is about a man, Mike King (George Clooney in an much deserved, Oscar-nominated role), whose wife is in a coma following a speed boat accident. He learns from his oldest daughter that his wife was having an affair just before her accident, and the movie is about the family dealing with both the physical loss of their wife and mother and the psychological loss of a marriage because of infidelity. Concurrently, Mike is negotiating a lucrative land deal his whole extended family stands to benefit from as his family is descended from Hawaii’s ancient kings and possess the last piece of virgin Hawaiian coastal soil. Bloodlines are ripe for boiling like the molten rock barely beneath Hawaii’s surface.
The Descendants is a beautiful film. The only weak point is a bit of voice-over narration at the beginning of the film that thankfully stops soon. The plot develops engagingly and turns unexpectedly. The scenery and soundtrack, as I mentioned before, are arguably unparalleled in their beauty. (Why aren’t more films set in Hawaii?) Writer/director Alexander Payne has a knack for well-situating his stories in a place, be it the California wine country (Sideways) or the Nebraskan plains (About Schmidt). Furthermore, there is a grace to the way he treats his characters that I wish more filmmakers could muster. They don’t feel like fiction. They feel like real people.
Because these characters are conceived as real people, they act like real people would act. They are jealous and angry and greedy and selfish and unforgiving and cruel and blind to their own faults. Honestly though, were I to find myself in similar situations faced with similar pressures (and the situations the people in The Descendants find themselves in aren’t too far removed from real life), I would probably be prone to similar sin. Because of this, when they finally act hopefully, graciously, kindly, and forgivingly, (and they do, eventually, act that way), it comes as a delightful surprise, as if a breath of life emanates from the screen and fills the audience with a force of life not too far removed from the life that filled Adam in Eden years and years ago.
Ultimately, forgiveness is at the core of this film, and it springs up so shockingly, it made me realize how foreign forgiveness is to most of my human experience. The Descendants made me want to live forgiveness, to take it in from others and give it out to others with every breath. I want live in a place where the air is as thick with forgiveness as the Hawaiian air is with the aroma of flowers and ocean. That’s paradise.