Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed (Genesis 2:8).
Ever since the events of Genesis 3, we’ve hungered to return home. It’s the impulse that sent explorers out to the ends of the earth. It’s what Ponce de Leon looked for in Florida, what Cortez searched for amongst the Aztecs, and what sent Cheng Ho out from China into the Indian Ocean. It was promised to Israel as a land of milk and honey, and promised again to the church as the city of God.
It’s a resonant idea in pop culture. Lost‘s island was like a character unto itself, haunting the castaway’s minds with a sense of mystery and hope. “We have to go back,” Jack cried when he realized what he’d lost. We all want to go back. We want paradise.
Paradise is the backdrop for the Oscar-nominated movie The Descendants, a drama starring George Clooney that recently won the Golden Globe for best picture. It’s a strangely gentle and beautiful story of tragedy, set amidst the dreamy backdrop of Hawaii.
(Two warnings are in order: First, the movie is rated “R” for realistically rough language, and second, there are what some may consider “spoilers” ahead.)
Clooney plays Matt King, a hard-working lawyer, husband, and father of two. His wife, Elizabeth, suffers a traumatic brain injury after a boating accident. A doctor tells Matt that she’ll never revive from the resulting coma, and a living will specifies that they can’t keep her on life support indefinitely, leaving Matt to break the news to his children, family, and friends. He takes his youngest daughter, Scotty, to pick up his oldest daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), from a boarding school on a neighboring island, wrestling internally with how to break the news.
Alex is a classic “troubled teen” with a history of bitter feuding with her mother and a penchant for wild behavior. As the movie progresses, Matt tells Alex, and asks her to help him tell the others, including Scotty, who is only 9 or 10 years old.
Ordinary People, Terrible Trauma
As he breaks the news to Alex, the plot thickens. Why did they fight so bitterly? What was the rift between them? “Dad, she was cheating on you.” Alex had witnessed her with her lover, and when Alex confronted her, the war between them erupted.
Clooney and Woodley are both at the top of their game in the film, with heartbreaking and subtle performances as ordinary people in the midst of a horrible trauma. They find a kind of solace together, even as Alex introduces to the family drama her dumpy boyfriend, a spaced-out surfer kid whose presence only makes sense late in the story, during a midnight talk with Matt. Their humanity shines through—in all of its beautiful brokenness.
In the film’s opening sequence, Matt talks about how most people view life in Hawaii, imagining it to be life in paradise. Juxtaposed with images of Hawaii’s gorgeous green landscapes and sapphire seas are faces of the homeless, tumbledown shacks, and glimpses of poverty and suffering. “Do they think we’re immune to suffering?”
It’s that juxtaposition that makes The Descendants a powerful story. The beauty of the islands is otherworldly, something once pure and undefiled, now littered with tourist traps and resorts, broken homes and broken lives.
Hanging Like Ghosts
Parallel to Matt’s own crisis is the journey of the King family. They’re descendants of an American settler and an indigenous Hawaiian princess, and the family owns land all over the islands, including a massive beachside acreage that is still undeveloped. Matt is one of the only descendants who remains wealthy, having never spent his inheritance, and is the only trustee living who has decision-making authority over the land they co-own. The others want him to sell the undeveloped property, knowing that they’ll all stand to become incredibly wealthy in the process.
As Matt’s family unravels, his reservations about the sale grow. Photos of his long-dead relatives hang like ghosts around his home, hearkening back to a misty and idyllic past—a paradise lost to the sprawling commerce on the island and the creeping shadow of betrayal, failure, and death. He never loved his wife well. He wasn’t present with his children. He isn’t what he thought he was. Nothing is what he thought.
The only place he sees hope is the land. He refuses to sell, infuriating his relatives, but settling something in himself. It seems, perhaps, his clawing attempt to stop the plaguing spread of sin and death.
In one of the closing scenes of the film, Matt is in the hospital room with his wife when Julie Speer walks in. She is the wife of Elizabeth’s lover. She knows that there had been an affair, and she comes to offer her condolences and forgiveness. It’s a painful and awkward scene, brilliantly acted by Judy Greer. The emotion is palpable as she offers forgiveness to the nearly lifeless body, alternatively weeping, wailing, and shouting through gritted teeth.
Confused and convoluted as all that emotion may be, Julie knows that the only thing that can heal the trauma to her family, to Matt’s, and perhaps to all of us is grace. It’s cathartic for her, and catalytic to Matt, who only afterward can extend grace to Elizabeth, offering loving words to her dying frame while saying a heartfelt and pain-filled goodbye.
The Descendents is a rare movie. Though it fails to see the ultimate hope for paradise lost in Jesus, who prepares a paradise for his people even now, it sees the loss and hints at the solution. It’s beautifully acted by Clooney, Woodley, and Greer, opening the door on a troubled family in the midst of crisis. The soundtrack—elegant and understated excerpts of Hawaiian slack-key guitar and traditional music—works with the stunning backdrop of the islands to show that beauty and tragedy are held together in our gorgeous and broken world.
There is no paradise on Earth, no corner where the curse’s cruel tentacles haven’t spread. But in Christ, there is hope for such a place. In him, we can all go back.