Seldom do movies make the struggle to keep a dysfunctional family together seem so sobering and lucid. Beautifully shot, exquisitely written and featuring an excellent turn from George Clooney, The Descendants features a narrative that persistently subverts your expectations to almost hypnotic levels. Alexander Payne is a gifted, thoughtful filmmaker, unafraid to tackle difficult subjects, and his latest is his most engaging, most accessible film to date and a testament to the power of cinema.
As heart wrenching as the plot is, The Descendants opts for comedy in the face of modern ruin. The film is not the least bit a gloomy existentialist diatribe on the state of modern families, it is neither a celebration or dirge of the human condition, nor the lassitude of imminent death, but simply a cynical meditation on the ambiguous present. It moves you without resorting to melodrama and tackles the themes of personal loss with astonishing candor and depth. Quite like the cancer comedy 50/50, this film diligently avoids cinematic grandstanding and emotional manipulation in favor of extremely subtle but effective dramatization. The bittersweet leitmotifs carry a message of redemption so powerfully restrained that you’re carried away on its wave of resplendence.
The film itself is set in Hawaii – a broken paradise which makes for a fresh spring of visual wonder. Matt King (George Clooney) is a wealthy lawyer whose wife is left in a vegetative state after a boating accident. He is left to deal with his two daughters, the 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and the rebellious 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). King also has to handle the impending disposition of his family plot in Hawaii that his broke cousins want to sell off for a huge sum. Complicating things further, King comes to know of a secret about his comatose wife that he is simply unable to cope with. Distraught, King decides to takes his daughters on a trip to a nearby island for family-bonding and to find closure about Mrs King.
There are no arthouse shots of depressing adage-expounding sermons in The Descendants as director Payne sticks to a quirky, often darkly humorous tone. There is a lovely offbeat comic allegory throughout that elevates the astuteness of Payne’s humanist observations. In fact some of the jokes are downright unsettling - they evoke the sort of laughter that is uncomfortable because Payne simply refuses to sentimentalize the proceedings. The film's idiosyncratic beauty is recommendation enough, but the way the characters’ personal and symbolic tensions seethe silently turn it into powerfully real drama.
One cannot let go of the cast – the performances lift The Descendants from the level of the ordinary to a special realm of storytelling. Matt King knows that simply being a human being isn’t enough – he has an injunction against a world that requires him to be a hero, and he is brilliantly personified by George Clooney who renders emotions that seem almost inexpressible. Shailene Woodley is incredible in her breakthrough role as a recalcitrant teen weary of being just like her mother. Nick Krause is unforgettable as the stoner, but good hearted friend of Alexandra, as is Robert Forster as King’s father-in-law. Matthew Lilard has a small but important role and is excellent as he effortlessly carries his dishonest, yet painfully realistic character as opposed to the more obvious Hollywood clichés. Judy Greer has a brilliant extended cameo as Lilard’s wife.
The Descendants is very slight, yet overflows with wisdom and emotion. Don't be surprised, if days after seeing this gem, you discover it has taken up residence in your head.
(First published in Mid Day)