' ' Cinema Romantico: The Descendants: Dissecting A Scene Through Dialogue

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Descendants: Dissecting A Scene Through Dialogue

Matt King (George Clooney), his daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) and her “friend” Syd (Nick Krause) have just left the home of the parents of Matt’s wife, Elizabeth, who is currently in a coma, the same wife he has just learned had been cheating on him with local real estate agent Brian Speer. Syd, sort of like a 2 watt bulb, had mostly unintentionally insulted the dementia-addled wife of Elizabeth’s father. This resulted in her husband (Robert Forster) punching Syd in the face. Syd rides in the backseat of Matt’s car, an icebag pressed to his bruised eye, with Alex.

Syd: "How often do old people haul off and just fucking cold cock you?"
Matt: "He's hit me a few times over the years. And watch your language."

There is more than just a bit of swearing in “The Descendants.” The swearing, in fact, would be the singular reason why it was saddled with an “R” rating. But where the majority of swearing in American movies has no rhyme or reason and it just numbs the mind and leaves the audience de-sensitized, the frequent swearing in “The Descendants” has a clever and almost subtle higher purpose. To wit…

Alex: "Can I see it?” (She pulls the icebag off Syd’s eye to reveal the black and blue wound.) “Holy shit."

2.5 seconds after Matt has just decreed “Watch your language”, his daughter completely ignores her father’s decree and uses bad language.

Matt: "Can you two just cool it when you're around me? Stop touching each other?"
Syd: "Woah, man. Maybe that's why you're wife cheated on you, if you're so against touching."

- Matt brings his car to a furious halt, turns and wags his finger in Syd’s face.

Matt: "You little fuck. Do you get hit a lot?"

This happens again and again. Matt admonishing his children to watch their language only to utterly fail to heed his own admonishment. There is even an occasion when he employs bad language and one daughter or the other immediately afterwards employs bad language and then he admonishes them for employing bad language. What opens up wider and wider on repeated viewings is how carefully drawn “The Descendants” is to show how traits – whether for good or bad - have been passed down in this family.

Syd: "I've had my share."
Matt (to Alex): "Your friend is completely retarded."
Syd: "Hey, my little brother is retarded. Don't use that word in a derogatory fashion."
Matt: "Oh."

This is also a film about immaturity. Sure, Matt may be lawyer and a Hawaiian land baron but the film never hides how ill-equipped he is to be thrust into the position of caring for his daughters all on his own and never shies away from displaying his infantile rages. Like this one. Choosing to call his daughter’s friend “retarded” as a means to insult is the sort of choice a second-grader on the playground might make, and Syd immediately calling him out knocks him back. His “oh” seems to be one not just of shock but resignation to the sin he has just committed. Then again…

Syd: "Psyche. I don't have a retarded brother."
Alex: "Syd, you suck!"
Syd: "Speaking of retarded, do you ever wish that retarded people or old people would just hurry up? Sometimes I'm waiting for them to cross the street and I'm like, come on already."

So yeah, Syd is just as immature as Matt, but even as Syd carries on the camera focuses in on Matt, disheveled, breathing heavily, maybe coming to grips with his own weakness. It has all the markings of a possibly poignant moment, and even more so when Alex ignores Syd and leans forward toward her Dad as we expect a father/daughter talk full of hard-won platitudes. Instead…

Alex: "Dad, don't forget that I know where he lives."

As in, Brian Speer. She knows where the guy who was cheating on her dad’s wife lives. They can go find him. Stalk him. Have it out with him. But perhaps Matt will for once reject the infantile and accept the mature. Perhaps he will have a moment of enlightenment.

Matt: "Get in the front seat."

Or perhaps not.


Sam Turner said...

Yeah, great dissection, great scene, great dialogue, great film - and one that gets greater the further off from my first watch of it I get. Today's pretty great, yah?

Andrew K. said...

Oh, that was nice. Don't like the film (as you know) but this moment works and your analysis works even better than the actual scene.

Nick Prigge said...

Sam: Thank you. It does just get better and better, lingering in the mind and on repeated viewings.

Andrew: Thank you, too. I suppose I am starting to get to the point where perhaps I'm reading a bit too deeply into scenes in this movie and maybe projecting onto them, but you know....these things happen.

Castor said...

Nice look at this particular scene Nick. Biting and yet simultaneously hilarious!

Andrew K. said...

"but you know....these things happen."

YES, and when they do it's AWESOME. I have had to LITERALLY (as Chris from Parks and Rec) stop myself from doing too many posts on one film, or otherwise I could do A Scene on a Sunday or Forgotten Characters from Atonement, Titanic, Gosford Park and a few other films every week!

(you haven't reached that level, and as I said, this scene does work. And, I'm sorry ["Speaking of retarded, do you ever wish that retarded people or old people would just hurry up? Sometimes I'm waiting for them to cross the street and I'm like, come on already."] I get where he's coming from with that.

Nick Prigge said...

Castor: My thanks, sir.

Andrew: Yeah. I know where he's coming from with that too. And I had to literally stop myself from making even more Titanic posts, too, right after it's re-release. I could have dedicated a whole week to it! Perhaps for the next re-release?