“What is it that makes the women in my life want to destroy themselves?” Matt King (George Clooney) says this when he finds his daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) drunk at school after going to retrieve her to tell her that her mother is dying. This sentiment sums up Alexander Payne’s The Descendants perfectly. Though at the crux of this 2011 film is a family tragedy, and the impact that it has on each individual member’s life, it is also a story of survival, about being torn down then fighting to get back to some level of normalcy.
The film centers on Matt King (George Clooney) a lawyer specializing in real estate transaction law who lives in Hawaii. Matt is very well-off because his great-great-grandmother was royalty and married a banker, and together they acquired huge amounts of land, which made the family quite wealthy. Each family member has been given a trust from the money that was acquired over the years from the land. The last portion of land that the family owns is 25,000 acres on Kauai, but according to the Rule Against Perpetuity the land has to be sold within seven years and the trust dissolved. Matt is the sole trustee of this land and has been involved in meetings with members of his family in order to figure out whom to sell the land to. Matt is a very self-sufficient man. He has not used any of his trust, only spending the money that he earns from his law practice. In the middle of this family business is his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), who is in the hospital in a coma because she was thrown from a powerboat during a race. Matt, being heavily involved in his practice, never got to spend a lot of time with his children, 17-year-old Alex and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), or his wife, and with her in the hospital he is their sole support. As Matt says, “I’m the backup parent. The understudy.” Matters are further complicated when he discovers that his wife will never come out of the coma and has to be taken off the machines that are helping her to live. It’s in her Advance Directive. Later on in the film he also learns from Alex that she had been cheating on him.
Clooney does a great job of holding everyone together in this movie. He walks the line between father, negotiator, and husband very well, and is able to go from very serious and demanding to sympathetic in a matter of seconds. The camerawork in this film is very interesting, with a lot of close-ups that portray such raw emotion in the actors. When Clooney tells Woodley that her mother is not going to wake up and has to be taken off the machines Woodley is in a pool and drops down underwater, her hands clasping her head and she sobs as her hands move downward covering her face. She swims toward the camera, her face contorted with sadness. Her expressions in those few seconds said everything that she felt. Shailene Woodley, who portrays a rebellious teenager who claims she “has gotten her act together,” does a great job in this film. She exudes this maturity that goes with the mothering role that she as taken on, and brings sincerity to the part. Another series of close-ups occur the last time Clooney visits his wife in the hospital. The camera first pans all the way up Hastie’s comforter and stops on her face, then it switches to Miller and zooms in on her face as she sleeps. The camera then focuses on Nick Krause, who plays Alex’s stoner pal Sid, and pans outward from him as he sits in a chair, then it switches to Woodley, who looks so solemn and worn out, and slowly moves in on her face. This scene is so peaceful, and is another example of the impact that silence has within this script.
The character that surprised me the most in the film was Sid. Krause served as the comic relief in a movie that did not have much space for laughs, and he and Clooney played well off one another. Krause delivers asinine comments so well that at points I just sat back dumbfounded. I was genuinely annoyed by his crassness, which meant he was doing everything right. Sid was a character with so many different layers, and Krause was able to tap into each one of those.
The film would not have been nearly as good without the stellar source material by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and screenplay by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash. I am not familiar with the novel itself, but am very familiar with the work of Faxon and Rash, who recently wrote and directed a movie entitled The Way, Way Back that came out earlier this year. Faxon and Rash are great dialogue writers, capable of creating really believable lines for all of their characters, no matter the age. Within The Descendants I was particularly impressed with the dialogue used for Alex and Sid. It just flowed and fit with them effortlessly, and did not seem stale or cliché. I am always amazed when older people can write lines for young people, because sometimes when that happens the dialogue comes off more so as caricatures of young people. Faxon and Rash were able to do the same thing in The Way Way Back, they have a talent for tapping into family drama and communicating so many characters’ feelings in realistic ways. My only complaint for The Descendants is that more time should have been spent on the family history. The explanation breezed by in a short monologue by Clooney and I would have preferred to see a longer monologue, so it was easier for the viewer to follow. Overall, The Descendants showcases the power of a wonderful script and great actors, and portrays authentically the ups and downs of this normal family in extraordinary situations.
Guest blogger Amanda Howard reviewed The Descendants.