I forget about Hawaii sometimes. Not that I forget that it’s one of the 50 United States of America, but rather that it has a story larger than beach resorts and honeymooners. The heavy-handed review of The Descendants would discuss how George Clooney eschews the idea that Hawaii is paradise. The most obvious concept of the film is that tragedy, heartbreak, hardship - i.e. all the brokenness of our world - is universal. In other words, bad things can happen in Hawaii just like anywhere else. But this is really only the hook of the film: it’s introduced in the initial voiceover, within the first ten minutes. It’s the subject of the film, but not the theme.
The theme is many layers below it, underneath a lot of sand and sadness. This is a film about families and land. In this way, The Descendants aligns itself with one of the great ideas of American literature. From Melville’s murky Atlantic and Thoreau’s New England woods to Twain’s Mississippi and Steinbeck’s California valleys, the story of America is the story of land - the cycle of seizure, possession, repossession, and preservation. And in the land is the story of the Dream: that with hard work and dedication, the driest soil will produce the richest harvest.
This is the American mythos. This is what led hundreds upon thousands of people to board boats and cross oceans. We think of New York, of the Cajun South, the West Coast even. But we forget that Hawaii is a part of the mythos, a puzzle piece in the story of men, their land, and their families; and above all, the story of men and the pursuit of the American Dream.
Payne’s film is so subtle in portraying these themes, it would be easy to miss. But it’s all there. Matt King is a successful lawyer who is also the direct descendant of King Kamehameha I, the first king of the Hawaiian Islands. As such, he is the fiduciary of a trust, which states that his family owns 25,000 acres of pristine Hawaiian beachfront property on the island of Kauai. He is living the “dream” - not only is he successful on his own terms and in his own power, but he is also the rightful inheritor of the fruit of such aspirations. He benefits both from ancestry and from his own labor.
And yet, he is notoriously stingy, serves as an absent father and husband, and spends a good deal of the movie questioning the life he has built - which to others is seen as nothing less than “paradise.” Matt’s mainland friends are not just jealous of his place of residence, but also of his lifestyle. He’s a modern day land baron. What more could you ask for?
Apparently everything. When his wife is injured in a boating accident and falls into a coma, Matt finds out from his snarky oldest daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), that his marriage was in poor shape. His wife was having an affair. Moreover, his youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), is displaying violent and cruel tendencies toward her classmates, among others. His family is so disjointed, so broken in its communication and feeling, that the American Dream seems like a poor substitute for real, human relationships.
The texture of the film is the landscape of Hawaii, namely the property owned by King’s clan. However, their trust expires in 7 years so they are currently dealing with selling it off to corporations and marketers. Capitalism at its finest: land inherited, not earned, given up for a profit because its meaning has faded.
The locals are saddened to see yet another preserved part of the islands given over to new business, ravaged by more hotels and consumer-friendly beach outlets. The family, on the other hand, sees the light at the end of the tunnel: soon the hassle of the land will be over and they can enjoy their money in peace. The pride of ownership is subjugated by the comfort of wealth.
For anyone remotely interested in American literature or politics, I think this is an important film. Sure, Hawaii seems far removed, hardly a primary concern for the current presidential candidates, hardly a concern for much of anyone other than tourists and honeymooners. Still, it enters into that distinctly American conversation of the land and its meaning.
One last thing. Quite pointedly, there are two legal instruments in the film that are considered: one concerning life and one concerning land. In the end, they’re not so different. They become one in the same actually. The land is trying, the land holds great potential, the land might be easier if it was no longer yours - if it was simply given up to the machine of modernity and economy. A marriage is trying, a marriage holds great potential, a marriage might be easier if you stopped caring - if you gave into your own desires and stopped considering the vows you took. There’s no easy answer. When it comes to that debate between cold economy and capitally ill-advised passion, what do you choose?
All of us hope that when we are tested, we will choose the right path. That we’ll stay true to our vows, think about what’s best for the greater number rather than just ourselves. But the dirty truth is we all fall short sometimes. We’re all flawed. Marriages are messy, families are messy, the land becomes overgrown and hard to manage. Perhaps there is a right time to throw in the towel, a right time to sell or even admit defeat. But America - the country shaped by land and the fight to keep it alive - will fall apart when everyone’s selling and no one’s preserving, when everyone sees economy and not the promise they made to each other and to the land of their ancestors.
“Go ahead, sue me,” Matt King says to a family member. “It will bring us closer together.” It’s ironic, isn’t it? That even when we share blood and land with someone, it takes the threat of losing money to truly bring us together. It’s the cry of a man who may be realizing that the loss of a few dollars - even the loss of his entire bank account - pales in comparison to the loss of his family and the land of his people.
We are all descendants. Descendants of our parents and their parents and their parents before them. Descendants of a few dollars or a large trust. But most of all, we are descendants of a citizenship, of a dream, of a figurative and literal claim on the land. This is not something to consider lightly. I don’t think it’s dramatic to say that America is at a crisis moment in its history, splayed out on the hospital bed with its many children gathered round. There will be trusts and wills, there will be battles and legal cases too. It will be trying, it will hold great potential, it might be easier to get up and leave the country. But eventually we must decide: what are we going to do with this land?