From a Buddhist point of view most, if not all, of the fiction we consume in our culture is about samsara.
Find the girl (or the boy) of your dreams. Get the money. Kill the bad guy. All of these standard plot lines revolve around motivations that are fueled by the three poisons: ignorance of our true nature, desire and anger.
The Descendants, although still firmly set in samsara, is different. Matt King (George Clooney) is a descendent of Hawaiian royalty and the sole trustee of a parcel of untouched coastal land. Just at the time he is faced with the decision to sell this land to developers, his wife is rendered comatose by a boating accident. He soon learns that the coma is irreversible and he and his two troubled daughters are forced to work through the inevitability of her death.
“We know in our hearts that in the end, death is going to win.”
This is a subject that is rarely explored in American cinema. It was refreshing and it was handled with such great skill, insight and sensitivity that it resulted in two butter and tear soaked paper napkins by the end.
But the film isn’t just some Speilbergian excercise in yanking brutishly on our preprogrammed heart-strings (Fear not, Steven, I will be seeing War Horse on Christmas Day…). It is a grown-up movie that tenderly, yet fearlessly, looks into the heart of human experience with all its messiness and confusion, acknowledging the ultimate helplessness we all feel because we know in our hearts that in the end, death is going to win.
The thing that most moved me about the film was that the actors, the writers and the director were not afraid to meditate on this experience. They explored it fully and patiently as the characters went through all the emotions that most people actually do when faced with the reality of death. There was denial, resistance, anger and finally acceptance, forgiveness and maybe even illumination. It was perfect.
The Descendants gives me hope that storytelling in our culture is still a valuable tool for understanding our place in the world. It asks the real questions, the ones that matter. What are we doing here? What are these feelings of pain, sadness and joy? How can we find each other through the realization that we all suffer, that we all share a common experience?
If you haven’t seen this film yet, please do. Don’t worry, it’s not all sadness and grief. This film is about life in all its complexity and that includes laughter and joy. Just be sure to bring your wide open heart.