THE DESCENDANTS and the death of the male ego

We hadn’t spoken in three days.
In a way we hadn’t really spoken in months.
If you’re doing this to get my attention, Liz, it’s working.
I’m ready now.
I’m ready to talk.
I’m ready to change.

Matt King is standing over the bed of his comatose wife. He’s trying to tell himself that it’s not too late to save his marriage, even as he knows that she likely will never wake up.

What Matt, as played by George Clooney, doesn’t know then is that the marriage was already over. Elizabeth, his wife, was having an affair and planning to leave him. And even if she had never suffered a head injury in that boating accident, Matt was going to end up whipsawed.

Either way, he was going to discover that sometimes, sadly, you only find your motivation to change after you’ve suffered a deep loss.

While Alexander Payne’s The Descendants earned relatively good notices when it was released in 2011, there were some dissenting rumblings. One strain was that this was yet another film about a middle-aged white guy in a crisis and haven’t we all had enough of that. Another knock was that it made a dying, mute woman the antagonist.

But as a middle-aged white guy myself, I find the film more resonant than ever. It asks whether any of us can break our self-defeating patterns and become something new after decades of wearing the same groove. In Matt’s case, he was a distant husband and father, a workaholic who didn’t notice when his wife was drifting away and who barely paid attention to his two children. “I’m the backup parent,” Matt says in a voice-over.

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I’ve shared custody of my daughter for almost 10 years—so I never have had the luxury of being the backup parent. But certainly during my marriage and at times since, I’ve dropped the ball, shifting my burdens onto someone else or walling myself off. These days, I’m watching my daughter change before my eyes, leaving childhood behind, becoming a different person, and I share Matt’s sense of bewilderment at how things you once took as rock-solid can shift so suddenly and permanently.

Matt loses Elizabeth twice in the film—first in the accident and then when he discovers her infidelity. Only one of those, however, shreds his ego and sends him spinning helplessly. Early in the film, even as Matt despairs, there’s a sense that he is gearing up to be the family’s savior, the hero of his own story. But once he learns of the affair, his inner strength melts.

The most memorable—and comedic—scene in the film is Matt clopping down a hill in his sandals like a man who has forgotten how to run. But the scene after that, in which Matt confronts his sister-in-law, is perhaps the harshest one in the whole movie. He is petty, selfish, angry, his emotions spilling out sideways. And when those have run their course, he is finally, simply lost.

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A fair critique of the film—and indeed of men generally—is Matt can’t see past his own needs. Matt views Elizabeth’s impending death as happening to him. She’s putting him in the position of being a single parent. Her infidelity pierces; it’s a rejection of him, not an expression of his failure as a husband.

But, quickly, we see Matt recalibrate and show some capacity to grow (with the help of his daughter, Alex, also finding a new strength in herself). First, he gathers friends to honor his wife and then sets about trying to locate her lover in order to tell him about her condition. While the story sometimes makes Matt’s motivation opaque, it’s fairly clear from the outset that he is interested less in confrontation than in simply trying to figure out how the hell everything went so wrong. By the time he meets the object of his quest, much of the fight has already left Matt, and he surprises himself with his generosity even in the face of discovering how unworthy Elizabeth’s lover was of her.

Through the course of the film, Matt learns to see beyond his blind spot, loses his anger, and finds a deeper appreciation for his wife, his daughters, even for his land. That’s how the b-plot in the film connects to the a-plot. The money-driven, all-about-me Matt at the beginning wouldn’t have made the decision he makes at the end about his family’s real-estate deal.

Clooney, in interviews at the time, called it a “coming of age” story about a middle-aged man. And it’s why The Descendants moves me. It’s a story about picking up the pieces of a shattered male ego and seeing a bigger picture. It’s about removing yourself from the center of your universe and moving forward with love, generosity and grace. It’s about the dirty work of being a better man. When Matt finally bids farewell to Elizabeth at the close of the film, there’s a sense he’s now looking at her with different eyes and is grateful for the time they shared. “Goodbye, my love, my friend, my pain, my joy,” he says. “Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.”    –James Oliphant 

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