Fans of director Alexander Payne have been a patient bunch. His last film, the critically acclaimed, wonderfully warm and witty Sideways, was released eight years ago. Since then it’s been a long wait for the follow-up but The Descendants lives up to every expectation you could hope for in a Payne film.
Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is struggling to cope with the responsibility of looking after his two daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) when his wife is left in a coma after being in a boating accident. It’s not long before Matt learns that his wife will die, and the pressure of trying to secure a land deal and the revelation that his wife was having an affair helps to bring the family together in unexpected ways.
With the exception of Election, none of Payne’s films are laugh-a-minute comedy romps and the shadow of death and grief hangs heavily over The Descendants, perhaps even more so than the bittersweet About Schmidt. However, despite the heavy subjects lying at the core of the film, the events and excellent screenplay often lighten the mood and bring witty relief. Even Payne’s direction lends an airy tone to much of the film – quick, quirky close-ups of building projects and some occasionally inventive editing lighten the mood, while long, languid shots of the Hawaiian landscape help you appreciate and ponder upon the beauty and urbanisation of the four islands, helping the audience to interact more with Matt’s involvement in the land deal. Even the traditional music helps to connect with this exotic and still mysterious place, helping to make the landscape a leading character in the movie.
In terms of characterisation, George Clooney’s star quality could have detracted from the sympathy the audience needs to feel for Matt, but the layers of his real-life persona seem to be stripped away and replaced by someone entirely believable. Clooney’s performance is pitch-perfect and he moves comfortably from try-hard dad to grief-stricken husband. His comic timing is also better than ever: his comedy credentials have been proved previously, most notably in Coen Brothers movies like Oh Brother Where Art Thou and Burn After Reading, but here he turns everyday, sometimes throwaway comments into quietly humorous remarks. That said, despite Clooney’s presence and dominance over the film, the supporting roles are also excellently acted. Amara Miller as Scottie and Nick Krause as Alexandra’s best friend Sid provide the extra comic relief: they are often handed hilarious gems and the exchanges between Clooney and Krause provide some of the best scenes in the film.
Some critics, however, say that the film is ingrained with subtle misogyny, that Matt is a man suffering because of women. Of course, some of this feeling comes from Payne himself. All of his movies to a greater or lesser extent feature women who complicate the lives of the men around them, from the devilish Tracy Flick in Election to Schmidt’s estranged wife in About Schmidt. But it has to be pointed out that although Matt seems to resent his wife at some points, he also comes to terms with his own failings during the course of the film. In a way, his dying wife isn’t what causes chaos in this film, unlike other Payne works, but instead manages to restore harmony without even knowing it.
The Descendants is a darker prospect than Sideways, but still maintains an uplifting feel through the entire length. It is a humorous bit often touching examination of what it means to be a family, whether it be the immediate or the ancestors, and the connection people can make with each other and the past in difficult circumstances. It may have been a long wait since Payne’s last film, but this beautifully crafted tale more than makes up for the absence.
Words by Eugenie Johnson