In Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, the most catastrophic events that befall the main characters happen off screen, making it a kind of glossy kindred spirit to the more youth oriented romance Like Crazy (which is currently my favourite film of the year) and the much beloved cult drama Martha Marcy May Marlene. We never see the events that make the life of Hawaiian real estate lawyer Matt King such a mess, and we don’t necessarily need to because the film is more about emotion and character than it is about the particulars. While not as successful as those films are when it comes to plotting, Payne does create a story about privileged people dealing with real world issues without a sense of detachment or boredom. Sofia Coppola should see this film and take notes.
After his wife lapses into an irreversible coma following a speed boat accident, Matt (played by George Clooney) struggles with an impending future raising two daughters he spent the majority of his life emotionally detached from. His younger daughter Scottie is a burgeoning schoolyard bully with the mouth of a longshoreman and his eldest Alex is a borderline alcoholic that harbours deep resentment towards her mother for sending her off to a private academy. Matt struggles to reconcile Alex’s conflicted feelings because he needs her help in understanding just why his wife had been cheating on him in the weeks leading to her accident. In addition to his daily emotional stresses, Matt finds himself embroiled in the sale of ancestral land that his family needs to unload.
While the beginning of the film doesn’t really get off on the right footing with preachy, unnecessary narration and some pandering socio-economic babbling, Payne has crafted his most even handed film to date. Payne (Election, Sideways) excels at two major things in his films: showing the malaise of the upper middle class as being genuine while not revelling in privilege and the demystification of otherwise beautiful shooting locations. The Hawaii in Payne’s world is strikingly similar to the rest of the United States, with the same economic hardships and gentrification concerns as the rest of the country. Matt fits in by knowing his place in the world, never once rising or falling below it, making him a far more interesting Payne protagonist than the leads in his previous films who always strive for change. Matt simply wants answers. True change will come much later for him.
Clooney portrays Matt as a man whose anger is very slowly getting the best of him. At the start of the film Matt is almost monotone. It doesn’t feel like anything different from what Clooney has done in the past. The moment that Matt has conclusive proof that his wife had been cheating on him, however, Clooney shows how Matt’s grief is in constant conflict with the rage that comes from knowing he will have no chance at catharsis or reconciliation with his wife. It becomes more nuanced than anything Clooney has been asked to do in the past. That conflict is further personified by the excellent Shailene Woodley as Alex, a young woman who desperately wants to be respected, not so much by her father, but by a woman she will never get the chance to speak to again. Matthew Lillard shows surprising dramatic range in a small role as the realtor Matt’s wife was seeing on the sly, and Judy Greer is simply devastating as his unaware wife.
The film itself ends, from a screenwriting standpoint, almost too tidily since the last section of the film deals with how Matt’s marital problems dovetail with the impending sale of his family’s land, but the emotions of the story remain truthful and unforced. Maybe if Matt hadn’t been working on anything special at the time, the film would’ve been one of the year’s best. It really only exists as a further reinforcement of the film’s title, something that didn’t really need more explanation. It acts as a minor detraction from an otherwise great effort with powerful performances from actors working at their best and a director who finally lives up to the potential many claimed he had from the start.