Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is, as we’d expect from him, about as dead-on a character study as you are going to get. George Clooney collaborates with the independent American film-maker for the first time, and it’s a logical fit. Clooney has a remarkable ability — particularly for a megastar — to look completely normal. Matt King, the character he plays in The Descendants is one of Alexander Payne’s classic everyman heroes (everymen?): witty, honourable, but also quite flawed. It’s one of his best performances, and even though we all know that the Oscars are irrelevant, boy would it be nice to see him win for this.
The film opens with an accident that puts his wife Alexandra (Patricia Hastie) into a desperate and seemingly terminal coma. We learn that Matt and his wife were drifting apart at the time of the accident, and view first-hand that Matt also has tremendous difficulties connecting with his daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alex (Shailene Woodley). Simultaneously to this familial crisis, Matt must decide whether or not to sell 25,000 hectares of virginal Hawaiian land that he and his innumerable cousins inherited from a Hawaiian princess from back in the day.
We get a hint of Matt’s inner workings via a voice-over, a technique that usually grates on me but here is handled with great sensitivity and wit by Payne and his co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. The voice-over doesn’t so much come across as a device to relay information to the audience as much as Matt’s way of getting his mind in order. One second he’ll be talking about his business decision, and then mid-sentence he’ll reassure himself that his wife will make it (with some great editing and acting to match the split-second change in mood).
The Descendants is set in Hawaii, and the landscape, culture and cities of that beautiful part of the world are essential to the film’s feel. Matt feels a deep connection and obligation to the land, and this weighs heavily on his business decision. It was surprisingly refreshing to see a land baron portrayed not just as a bottom-line, money-centred crank. Matt cares about how pristine the land is, wonders whether half a billion dollars in sale value is worth the loss of the beauty of a majestic landscape. The Descendants suggests that it is possible to be a capitalistic land baron and businessman while also caring about one’s community — who’d have thought!
The business issues are secondary to the personal issues in this movie — although towards the end, the two become inexorably link, though not in the way you might think. The Descendants is great at throwing narrative curve balls at us that are constantly surprising without ever copping out. Genuine performances by George Clooney and Shailene Woodley make that certain.
The Descendants is also intrinsically, gently funny. It knows how absurd the day-to-day realities are when a personal crisis like the one that Matt faces hit, and pokes some gentle fun at his plight. George Clooney turns out to be a terrific physical actor, which helps. It all adds some necessary levity — we laugh that we may not cry. The emotional genuineness of The Descendants is such that it invites us to do both, in equal measure, for a number of reasons.