The Descendants

Dir. Alexander Payne

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Alexander Payne’s greatest asset as a filmmaker is his unwillingness to you let the viewer have an emotionally uncomplicated moment.  If you’re watching a scene and you think, “OK, I get it, I see where this is going emotionally and where we’re going to end up,” he will muck it up for you.  Every time.  He just does not allow that life can be simple—at any time, in any circumstance, for any reason. 


If you know me at all, you understand why this makes me like his films.  And I do like The Descendants, very much.


First, there are some really nice performances.  George Clooney gets great effect from his ability to seem simultaneously confident and befuddled—and from a weathering face and graying hair that can shift from dashing to over-the-hill in nothing flat.  That winning genetic-lottery ticket of a face is of course Clooney’s most valuable physical asset, and while he may have first made his way into the big leagues on the strength of its bone structure, we have watched him mature over the years into an actor with impressive control of this instrument.  He can now make that mug register about ten different emotions at once, without ever looking overworked; that’s exactly what’s needed here, and it’s why he is deserving of his Oscar nomination.  Shailene Woodley, for her part, does a bang-up job in the role of the teenage daughter, initially rebellious but eventually revealing herself to be wiser than some of the grown-ups around her; I held out some hope she would get a nod from the Academy for Best Supporting Actress.  There’s also plenty of colorful supporting work to enjoy from old pros (Robert Forster, Beau Bridges), semi-familiar faces (Judy Greer, Ron Huebel), and newcomers (Nick Krause, Amara Miller). 


But writer/director Payne is the real star of this show.  As a writer, he was of course limited to some degree by the actual source text (the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings), but don’t imagine that means this story is not his.  Whatever exists on the pages of the novel (I haven’t read it), we can all be sure that there are a hundred different ways it could have been told as a simplified, sentimentalized, life-affirming story about a family overcoming a crisis of loss.  In Hawaii.  Payne did us all the favor of making sure that’s not the story we got.  Instead, he decided to do something truly interesting and show us something about how people really are.


Take the scene when Julie, wife of the man with whom the now-comatose Elizabeth was having an affair, visits the hospital:  She comes to see Elizabeth because, she says, she knows her husband never will, and she feels like someone from the family should.  It’s a gesture of great maturity and generosity and sweetness, and we (and Elizabeth’s husband Matt) really fall for Julie at that moment.  Then she starts speaking directly to Elizabeth, saying she forgives her for having an affair with her husband….for being the cause of his dishonesty….for trying to take him away from her.…for trying to break up their family and their home…and of course, inevitably, she ends up crying and screaming, not at all like the lovely, forgiving creature who entered the room with a big bouquet of flowers.  Matt finally has to stop her and basically push her out the door to get rid of her.  Obviously, we understand her anger and it’s impossible to blame her for it.  But for a moment there, we thought we were going to have a scene of transcendence, of real grace and dignity in the midst of the pain and sadness and emotional chaos.  Alas, Payne wouldn’t let us have it.  He had to complicate it, had to let it get messy and ugly…and real.  Another director—most other directors—would have found a way to play that scene as tragedy, or as comedy, or as pathos.  Payne decided instead to play it as life.  That’s what he does.  And he does it better in The Descendants than he has ever done it before.


© 2012 dondi demarco