Keeping the press and industry folks waiting in a sweltering theatre for more than an hour is not one’s idea of a good time here at TIFF, but that’s exactly what happened this morning when a 9 AM screening of The Descendants was delayed for technical reasons. Not a great start to the morning and not the ideal way to start a film. Luckily, it was all worth it, as The Descendants (****) is one of the year’s very best films and destined to be a major player come Oscar time.
Alexander Payne once again tackles very real human issues with grace and realism, creating a film that seems to reach and stroke the soul with its insight. Matt King (George Clooney) is a lawyer struggling with a land decision that will make his family unspeakably wealthy, while something terrible has happened in his family. His wife is in a coma, not expected to live, and his daughters are struggling with this reality. When his eldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) speaks to him of why she is so angry at her mother, it will rock his life; his world seems to slip from beneath from his feet as everything he believed in has been torn apart.
Emotionally devastated while trying to be there for his daughters, Matt goes on an information mission to find out what his wife was up to in the months before the accident. What he finds does not give him any happiness, and in fact seems to crush him more. Yet slowly Matt comes to terms with his own failings as a father and husband, and if not accepting what his wife did, he comes to understand it.
Let me go on the record as saying that George Clooney should win the Academy Award for his brilliant performance as Matt. Never before has Clooney been so vulnerable, wounded and unsure of himself. The way he moves is a man struggling to find his footing, the way he speaks is a man trying to find the right words and knowing he will not. It is the finest work of his career, and by far the most openly emotional performance he has ever given.
Woodley is also superb as Alex, teeming with hormones and resentment at her mother and not quite understanding it all. She loves her father, feels for him and goes on this dark journey with him. She too is searching for answers she may not like.
Although the film is set in Hawaii, it is not the picturesque paradise that advertising leads us to believe. In the opening shots, Payne shows us the seedier side of the tropical island. The weather always seems to be ominous, the water dark, the sky ever changing, few bright clear days…as if the weather itself has adopted the mood of out protagonist.
Payne has always been a tender and intelligent director. His studies of humanity bring out the best in actors such as Jack Nicholson, Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh. Now he brings out the very best in George Clooney, who has more than proven himself to be an actor first and a movie star second.
It struck me that the film is a very different type of love story in its portrayal of forgiveness and moving on after a terrible betrayal. Marriage as portrayed in The Descendants has seldom been as painful as the one on display here: one of regret, one of pain, one of disappointments. Matt is aware he has disappointed his wife, just as he is aware that he has let down his children, but recognizes that this tragedy offers him a chance to be the father and the husband he always believed he could be. Though his wife will probably never see firsthand his strengths as character, he is finally aware of them and the final image of the film makes clear just how far Matt has come in his life and in the life of his family.
Many of us are married and have experienced tragedy in our lives. During such times, there is no time for anger or pettiness because that could be the last time we are in the presence of the people around us. Family is made up of the people we love most. They are with us for a reason. We have connected to them on a deep level, and experiencing tragedy with them is difficult and demanding, but necessary as it provides an opportunity to rise to the occasion and allow our greatest attributes to come forth.
That is what happened in the film. I felt that each of these characters grew immensely and by the end of the picture had found the goodness within themselves and forgiven themselves for their flaws. More importantly, they have forgiven each other for their flaws. They must in order to continue their lives and be whole.
The Descendants is the best type of film, one that captures life, the drama and the pain of it, but also its levity. In watching the film we are watching extensions of ourselves and perhaps saying, “I know that man…I am that man.”