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Friday, February 10, 2012

The Descendants: A Matter of Character

In the 2011 film, The Descendants, George Clooney plays a character who must wrestle with several trade-offs bearing on character itself. Both the acting and the screenwriting handle the task very well. It is a pity that the actor gets a near monopoly of the credit/attention, for the way the trade-offs are navigated by the screenwriter is vitally important—perhaps even more so than the acting.


For example, the decision is made in the writing whether the character will cash in on instant gratification or protect the interests of people who do not deserve any such protection. Moreover, the screenwriter weighs how many of the character’s decisions will side with principles over expediency and how many will reflect instant gratification.
Clooney’s character decides not to harm an antagonist in one way and then decides to take something away from that same antagonist. The taking away is consistent with a societal principle, but is nonetheless part of the motivation. Interestingly, the decision not to harm the antagonist even though such harm would be totally justified contributes to the antagonist effectively undoing that protection.
Generally speaking, deciding not to pounce when one would be justified in doing so can eventuate in the protagonist “having his cake while eating it too.” Acting on principle rather than satisfying immediate gratification can involve or trigger a “multiplier effect” wherein “what goes around comes around” for the offending antagonist. The protagonist acts on the basis of character—which is beyond ethical obligation—and eventually can realize satisfaction, only here due to the antagonist’s flaw unraveling rather than to any complicity by the protagonist.
Deciding to be merciful at the expense of instant justification may trigger something in nature that eventuates in one eventually receiving an even greater benefit “with interest.” In illustrating this dynamic, the screenwriter teaches a modern society of instant gratification an important lesson and provides a role model for us all.