Director: Alexander Payne
“The Descendants is Payne delivering what he does best: a grown-up, melancholy story about life, filled with humor and heartbreak.” (941, Simon Ward, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) The Descendants is set in an idyllic location – the beautiful verdant islands of Hawaii. But like Clooney’s Matt says at the start – “My friends on the mainland think because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise. Like a permanent vacation. We’re all just out here sipping mai tais, shaking our hips, and catching waves. Are they insane? Do they think we’re immune to life? How can they possibly think our families are less screwed up, our cancers less fatal, our heartaches less painful?” That opening statement sums up and sets the tone for the film.
“The legacy bestowed upon Matt, his relationship with his own descendants, and inescapable familial bonds press in on him from all sides, and he is forced to decide what is important in his life and how his choices affect others.” (941) The young actors playing Matt’s troubled girls, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) are both excellent. Yes Alex is the typical screwed up teenager who has problems with everything from drink and drugs to authority figures. And yet she is pretty mature at handling the act of switching her mother off life support albeit while maintaining a major potty mouth throughout the whole ordeal. her friend Sid (Nick Krause) who she insists on staying with her, initially comes across as a stoned surfer guy. However as appears to be a theme within the story, there is more to him than what you first see. Having also recently lost a parent he is a key person in Alex’s life – someone her own age who understands exactly what she is going through. And he’s pretty good at looking after Scottie when needed. Scottie is just at the age where she can really understand what is happening and it’s evident in her behavior. She is most definitely testing Matt and is much underused parenting skills.
Clooney is exceptional in the lead role. He gives such a powerful and emotionally charged performance. What I particularly like is the quiet way he chose to play Matt, a husband faced with not only having to let his wife die but also discovering her infidelity at the same time. And on top of that he is trying to placate his entire family of numerous cousins during the decision to sell their land. He keeps his emotions strongly in check and only lets his sadness show when on his own. His farewell to his wife, Elizabeth, is moving and somehow beautiful to watch. Despite being angry with her (and justifiably so considering she was cheating on him) he is still having to say goodbye to the love of his life. I still think he deserved to win the Oscar for Best Actor – his performance, for me anyway, far outshone that of Jean Dujardin!
The locations are stunning, so lush and vibrant; it literally is a paradise. In some ways the decision to set the film in Hawaii makes the tragedy of the story more tangible. The music is very heavily Hawaiian which gives the soundtrack a tribal feel to it – again it fits with the “[…] core ideas […] of family, heritage, and responsibility.” (941)
The Descendants is a beautiful and touching film and I think Payne ends it wonderfully. The simple image of the reduced family coming together in silent acceptance. There is a sense of hope, despite everything they have been through they have emerged stronger and closer than they were before the unfortunate accident that is the catalyst for the entire narrative.