Without question, Alexander Payne’s latest film “The Descendants” floored me. Making his mark with the 1996 abortion-debate satire “Citizen Ruth” and maneuvering through high school politics with “Election”, a melancholic essay on growing old in “About Schmidt”, and his 2004 Oscar breakthrough, “Sideways”, which won Payne an Oscar for co-writing that film’s screenplay, Payne has always focused on people, men mostly, on the verge of falling apart. A terrific writer and underrated director, Payne does not just deliver great lines of dialogue or iconic images. Whether they are found in the unforgiving hallways of a Nebraska high school, the rich and bountiful experiences in the Napa Valley wine country, or the gorgeous atmospheres found in Kauai, Hawai’i, Payne is brilliant at dialing into how his moments, settings, and characters all intertwine.
And with “The Descendants”, Payne’s 7-year hiatus as a director finds him returning with his best and most fully accomplished work. Featuring George Clooney in a performance richer, more rewarding, and more affecting than anything he has delivered in his Oscar-winning career, Payne offers a film that speaks to the connections we make and take for granted, the uncomfortable emotions we all too frequently suppress, and the sudden rush of realization that comes too late, when those relationships you have always assumed would be there…may be gone forever.
Clooney plays Matt King, a Hawaiian descendant of a long familial lineage, who serves as the Trustee for a family trust, which has ownership of hundreds of acres of land. The cousins and family members have made the decision to sell, and while residents begin to rumble about what that may mean for the future of Kauai, King is ready to retire his law practice and transition into the next phase of his life. However, true to the duties of his responsibilities, he agrees to do whatever the majority of his family wants to do.
More pressing, however, is that Matt’s wife of more than 20 years, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), rests in a life-threatening coma with a slim possibility of survival. We learn that Elizabeth is an avid adventurist, never content in sitting still. However, during a competitive boating race, Elizabeth suffered a tragic accident which injured her severely. Over the course of the 20-plus days Elizabeth has been hospitalized, Matt has been tasked with raising his 10-year old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) on his own, and Scottie is quickly spiraling out of control. She is cursing at will, bullying via text message, and getting in more and more trouble at school. Needing help, Matt goes to retrieve his oldest daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), from college and brings her home to get her up to speed on what the Kings may be facing with their mother’s medical condition.
Initially, Alexandra is a caricature found in countless films. She is discovered drunk on the beach with her roommate, is rebellious, fights with her father and her sister, and skulks around with nauseating selfishness and attitude. Matt tries to reason with her and treat her in a more mature manner, out of necessity mostly, and ends up absorbing Alexandra’s pot-head boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause). Matt is flailing, trying to hold his life together, and after Alexandra reveals her mother was having an affair with a local realtor (Matthew Lillard), Matt thinks he may have reached the bottom.
Marketed as a comedy, “The Descendants” is much more dramatic than I ever could have expected. And despite all the loss looming over the King family, Payne, in an adapted screenplay with co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, finds tender and warm comedic moments, necessary in portraying a life that we can all relate to. We may not have a beachhouse in Kauai to call home, but we all have stared at the same backdrop in our lives day after day and wondered if this is essentially all we get. We may not have had a spouse or partner endure a traumatic, life-threatening injury, but nearly all of us have dealt with the raw emotions of visiting someone in the hospital and clinging to the hope that those moments are not our last. What Payne, Faxon, and Rush position in the forefront are those moments which rest underneath the “to do” lists, the everyday decisions, the agendas we all become consumed with. Content with routines and moving from one day to the next, we seldom truly look at what is happening around us. Matt King has had everything blasted open around him and akin to 1,000 Jack-in-the-Boxes popping off all at once, Matt is lost, confused, and simply trying.
As stated, Clooney has never been more moving or powerful than he is here and dissolves into the role of Matt, reaching layers and depths which require him to shed the sleek and slick stylings we have grown used to in recent years. And pushing Clooney to his incredible performance and matching him scene for scene, Shailene Woodley is officially ready for her close up. Anchoring the popular cult teen teledrama, “The Secret Life Of The American Teenager”, Woodley is often found on that show spitting out rhythmic, tempo-heavy dialogue that strains and wheezes within the show’s melodramatic layout. But for most people, “The Descendants” will be their first exposure to Woodley and once she warms to her father, her performance is equally intense and pitch perfect in matching Clooney’s emotions. They are fantastic together and watching their characters reconnect early on and build a father/daughter relationship over the course of the film is simply incredible to watch unfold.
I found myself dabbing eyes and swallowing hard several times with “The Descendants”, but not because it is a tearjerker or a shameless grab for the heartstrings. Payne runs from those cliches and punctuates his film with surprising moments of reality that a film of this type can seldom, if ever, attain. I loved the lack of sentimentality. I sat stunned when moments of pure and unfiltered anger and emotion emerge and hang in the air. I appreciated that Payne fleshes out his supporting cast just enough to give us an overview of everyone’s emotions and motivations.
With breathtaking visuals from cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who also lensed Clooney’s earlier 2011 film, “The Ides Of March”, and the exquisitely humble Hawaiian music score, “The Descendants” is transformative, powerful, and unforgettable.