The Descendants, a new film directed by Alexander Payne, opened with rave reviews last weekend, with critics calling it sure-fire Oscar-bait. But what struck me about the film was not the obsession which motivates the protagonist for most of the film. It was the unusual focus on the details of dying (and living) for those who remain — and the contrast between legal actions and emotional ones in daily life that really made this movie thought-provoking for me.
WARNING: spoiler alert!
The movie opens with a wife in a coma (Elizabeth King, played by Patricia Hasting) being attended to by her husband (lawyer Matt King, played by George Clooney). The viewer is left to imagine the boating accident that put her in the coma, just as Matt is, since he too, was not present at the event.
As the movie unfolds, we learn of Elizabeth’s character, not through the actresses’ portrayal, but through the other characters’ emotional reactions to her death. Like in a courtroom murder mystery, she is only knowable through what other characters say about her and the evidence at hand. We don’t know what’s true and what’s perceived, because Elizabeth can’t tell us herself.
A legal story
The film also hinges on two mirrored legal plot lines. Matt has to make a very public decision about a trust that has been passed down to him from royal Hawaiian ancestors, who created the trust to protect a swath of virgin Hawaiian land. Now, the trust has to be dismantled because of a vague law change, and Matt has seven years to figure out what to do with the land — sell it or do something else.
It’s a whopper of a decision that will literally change the landscape of Hawaii and affect the people who live and work there, as Matt is reminded by almost everyone he encounters — family or stranger. It would also make the protagonist and his family incredibly wealthy.
There’s also the personal legal issue of Elizabeth’s last wishes. We learn rather early-on in the film that Elizabeth has an Advance Directive (also known as a Living Will or Medical Power of Attorney depending on the jurisdiction) which specifies that she will be taken off life support if she becomes incapacitated, which is exactly what has happened. From the beginning, the story is about dealing with the reality of her immanent death, and acknowledging the permanency of her absence.
Interestingly, the Advance Directive is one of the only things we really KNOW from the story-world about what Elizabeth believed in her life. All of the other accounts about her — her personality, her loves, her actions — are filtered through the other characters. The same is true of Matt’s ancestors and the land trust; other than how his ancestors appear in sepia-toned photos, what we know of their beliefs is due to the legal action they took to entrust this land to protect it for future generations.
Life (and death) is messy
Although the big theme of the movie is about the importance of love, family, and forgiveness, there’s another take-away, and it’s much less sentimental and romantic.
Sometimes things “just happen” as Elizabeth’s lover claims as the justification for his affair. At the same time, the film focuses on deliberate and premeditated legal actions, in direct contrast with the haphazard way life unfolds.
Legal actions are a way to protect ourselves from the unpredictability of the world, ourselves, and the people around us.
For me, the movie is a strong reminder that putting your final wishes on paper is something you do for others, not for yourself. Life (and death) is messy enough without having to make an irrevocable decision about whether to withhold life-sustaining treatment to a loved one, or expecting a loved-one to do the same for you.
Sure, it’s not fun to think about for anyone. But the good news is that it’s not hard to get this essential document done, and get back to living your life.
If you don’t have an Advance Directive, you can create one online at Rocket Lawyer.
I’m doing mine. Are you?