A return to filmmaking after a seven year hiatus, The Descendants represents both a return and a step into new territory for Alexander Payne. The misanthropist auteur’s drama about a middle aged man on the verge of bereavement instantly recalls About Schmidt, and its focal point of an emotionally stunted schlub dealing with personal crisis could easily be lifted from Sideways or Election. But whilst those films were often a little too calculated or willing to resort to caricature, The Descendants is something altogether looser and more satisfying. Featuring a vanity-free performance by George Clooney, it is Payne’s best film to date by some distance, and one of Hollywood’s finest on the subject of grief.
George Clooney plays Matt King, a wealthy Hawaiian lawyer who acts as the trustee for his family’s last piece of ancestral paradise. Facing pressure to sell to developers and make a killing, King is plunged into crisis when his wife Elizabeth suffers a boating accident and falls into a coma. Dealing with the twin revelations that she had been unfaithful and that she will never wake up, he decides to take his children on a trip to confront her lover.
Payne, adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, has crafted a film neatly attuned to the messiness of life, and filled with lightly comic moments. Mostly avoiding the cathartic, on the nose dialogue of Sideways and the snideness of some of his earlier work, The Descendants is alive to the banal practicalities of bereavement. Cranky relatives (here wonderfully played by Robert Forster), friends and even adulterers have to be told the news, and a seemingly idyllic island community disguises petty family squabbles, secret resentments and tacky tourism.
Throughout, there is an emphasis on people unable to express themselves. Playing King as an emotionally uncommunicative putz, Clooney’s performance is a nuanced study of chino-wearing passivity. A master at evading emotional confrontation, his nature has left him estranged from seventeen year old tearaway Alexandra (Shailen Woodley) and ten year old Scottie (Amara Miller). Challenged to face up to his emotions and responsibilities, what begins as an infuriatingly courteous journey inevitably becomes an avenue for family reconciliation, and opening up about anger and grief.
Seeing life as both comedy and tragedy, The Descendants is frequently funny in moments of sadness, with Clooney’s girlish sprint to a friend’s house upon learning of Elizabeth’s betrayal simultaneously hilarious and agonising. Both mocking and sympathising with his characters, Payne’s growth as filmmaker is shown by minor players previously used for comic effect (a naked Kathy Bates in About Schmidt) being replaced by recognisably human fodder, such as convincingly squirming adulterer Matthew Lillard, who King confronts in a moment of witty catharsis that also end his distraction from grieving.
Meanwhile Alexandra’s surfer friend Sid (Nick Krause) steals a few scenes with his clueless insensitivity, and Woodley is particularly impressive, humanely complimenting her father’s confused, blossoming self-awareness. Their wordlessly morphing, solidifying relationship is perhaps Payne’s finest and most subtle achievement, and again it is a willingness to let meaning flow without dialogue that represents The Descendants’ strongest suit.
Suffering a slight misstep in its final third, The Descendants does make the mistake of offering Clooney an emotive speech suited to an Oscar campaign, and some of the other conclusions do feel a little too pat. But the emotional resolution is earned, the result of Payne having created characters with lives tangible beyond their narrative function. The sharp wit and commitment to damaged men remain, but with his newfound appreciation of what goes unsaid, The Descendants sees Payne finally becoming the filmmaker many have claimed he was all along.