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TBTS Reviews: The Descendants

December 17, 2011

I already believed it before I saw The Descendants earlier this week, but now I’m even more firmly in the camp that says Alexander Payne is one of the very best film storytellers we have. I use the word “storyteller” intentionally, as other, more common words (director, screenwriter, etc.) don’t do justice to Payne’s greatest strengths or his timeless output over the last 15 years.

Four* of Payne’s films as writer/director—The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt, and Election—share attractive elements of simple, straightforward, quiet drama (and comedy) rooted in recognizable human lives and situations. In other words, what each film is “about” can be told with a couple of simple sentences. The Descendants, Payne’s latest film, is about a Hawaiian man named Matt King who learns that his dying, comatose wife was having an affair before her recent boating accident, which is now claiming her life. While King and his two daughters must deal with the aftermath of the fatal accident and the affair, King must also decide what to do with a large, immensely valuable piece of land that his family has owned for generations.

The greatness of The Descendants and Payne’s other films owes much to the absence of grand gestures and overblown plotting. The Descendants is propelled by simple, universal human moments, which are written, constructed, and performed well. The strength of the characterizations allows the film to wring powerful drama and even some crisp comedy out of these seemingly “small” bits of story. It’s simple, really—in films with well-rounded characters who resemble actual human beings, the “big moments” closely resemble what most people would regard as the biggest moments in their lives. In some such films, falling in love and/or starting a family provides the focus. Other great films excel by portraying an ordinary person challenged by a credible extraordinary circumstance. The universal human situations in The Descendants include facing a loved one’s impending death, facing the temptation to seek revenge, and having the final authority and obligation to make a difficult decision that will significantly affect a large number of people.

The Descendants is even stronger because it successfully locates its human drama in a richly detailed, authentically rendered setting. This film’s gorgeous cinematography is essentially a love letter to the land, water, light, air, and colors of Hawaii, and the film’s soundtrack focuses exclusively on the islands’ lovely musical traditions. Importantly, in the opening minutes of The Descendants, Payne makes a smart decision to confront directly the notion that Hawaii is some sort of paradise where human lives are more carefree and all suffering can be waved off with a surfboard and an umbrella drink. The film successfully shows Hawaii as a place where lots of people live, not just visit, and what it might be like to see Hawaii as normal and other places as exotic. Payne’s previous film, Sideways, was similarly successful in evoking its setting in California wine country from a resident’s mindset rather than a visitor’s. In The Descendants, some characters’ loving, spiritual connections to Hawaii, and other residents’ lack of such bonds to their home place, even drive the dynamics of the decision that must be made with the King family’s landholding.

Finally, The Descendants is a profound success because of the strength of George Clooney’s performance as Matt King. Clooney isn’t exactly one of those actors who “disappears” into his roles, as Paul wrote about earlier this week, but he brings several deft touches to his portrayal of King. We are meant to see Matt King as a somewhat emotionally stunted, unavailable man who doesn’t quite know how to connect with most people, including his daughters. Clooney skillfully conveys these characteristics through somewhat clipped speech, jerky movements (especially when King is running), and direct but blank stares when King is at a loss for words. In two such moments, because the King character is so skillfully designed by Payne and portrayed by Clooney, those blank stares end up being incredibly moving. When he learns that his daughter’s friend, Sid, has more depth than King originally thought, instead of a false move such as a hug or some maudlin sentiment, King just stares at Sid for three extra beats before saying, “Good night, Sid.” Later, when Sid and King’s eldest daughter, Alex, unexpectedly come to King’s defense in the face of withering attacks from the dying wife’s father, King doesn’t thank the kids profusely or bring them in for a group hug when he gets the chance. He just stares at them for a second or two in the hospital room, and it’s perfect because of Clooney’s great execution of Payne’s coherent characterization. I wholeheartedly disagree with reviews such as this one in Slate, which seems to argue that Clooney was a bad choice to play Matt King because he’s too good-looking. In real life, which I think this film does fairly well at approximating, attractive people are sometimes the victims of infidelity, and sometimes their spouses have affairs with people who are less attractive. It’s dumb and shallow to criticize The Descendants on those grounds, especially while missing the nuances of Clooney’s fine performance that justify his casting even further.

The Descendants isn’t without flaws, such as its nearly exclusive focus on wealthy, privileged Hawaiians of American descent and resulting dismissal of the intriguing ethnic and class-based clashes that could have been addressed. I also wished for a bit more depth in the film’s real estate deal plotline. Still, for all the reasons I’ve outlined here, I found The Descendants to be one of the finest films of the year, and I’m even more inclined to agree with Chris Rock, who recently said in Rolling Stone, “We are lucky to be living in the time of Alexander Payne.”

*I haven’t seen Payne’s first full-length film, Citizen Ruth, so I didn’t include it in my list.

One Comment
  1. Paul the Geek permalink
    December 19, 2011 12:18 am

    I got “Citizen Ruth” from Netflix several years ago. I didn’t realize it was Payne’s work at the time. It’s a passable drama, with some comic elements. A bit heavy-handed as the central conflict winds itself up, but otherwise pretty good.

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