Monday, December 5, 2011
The title refers to the unexpected ancestry of protagonist Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer who resides in Oahu. King is the descendant of Hawaiian royalty, a princess who married a white missionary. And as he explains to the audience, his lineage gives him and his extended family ownership of a 25,000-acre land trust, which is set to expire in seven years. Rather than wait for the land to legally fade from their hands, his cousins want to sell the property for development, making them all extremely rich. Matt, the trustee of the land, is all on-board with this plan, until a boating accident leaves his wife in a permanent coma and changes the way he thinks about everything.
I say permanent coma without fear of spoiling, for the film openly states the hopelessness of Liz's condition within the first 10 minutes. The Descendants is not a film about the possibility of everything going back to normal but of making peace, of reassessing one's life and finding ways to cope with dramatic upheavals. And by deliberately preventing any kind of Hail Mary finale that miraculously restores Liz to full health, Payne and co. take away the safety net, ensuring that the emotional tumult Matt and the other characters endure is not for nothing.
Clooney gives what may be his best performance as Matt, whose conflicted attitudes toward his family only make the strain of Liz's accident harder. Matt is so stressed that even his narration is stand-offish. His first words in voiceover mock the views of those who think that life in Hawaii is magically better when he's watching his wife die in a hospital. "Paradise?" he hisses rhetorically. "Paradise can go fuck itself." Often absent with work, Matt must suddenly shoulder the responsibility of his two daughters: 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), both of whom nurse their own issues regarding their family. Scottie gets out her feelings over her mom's condition by showing photos of her to disturbed classmates and bullying the other children. Alex, on the other hand, knows a secret about her mother that drove a wedge between them just before the accident, tearing her between hatred for her mother and anguish at this turn of events.
Payne's film manages to capture these conflicting, often contradictory, reactions with clear humor but also a masterful grace that suggests a peak for the writer-director, who has never put forward the nuance and full emotional range of his characters so strongly. In another film, one could accuse the constant shifting of character relations and behaviors to be the sign of characters remolded for plot convenience. But by largely stripping away the plot from this story, Payne illuminates the messiness of grief, the way it wracks us with anger one second, sadness the next, and how people make armistices with each other even as they find new enemies. Payne trusts his audience to follow the erratic but never arbitrary emotional arcs of his characters, and anyone remotely paying attention will understand completely how Alex can be so belligerent to her father when they reunite yet almost become his partner when the two go searching for answers about Liz's life.
The most classical of modern movie stars, Clooney has always been solid in a literal sense, physically and emotionally. He confines his tears to a few quiet moments, away from others, almost away from the camera itself. The narrow range of expression Clooney allows himself makes Matt's feelings hard to place, leaving his erratic actions to suggest the play of thoughts tugging at the poor man. The fraying lawyer can scream his grievances at his comatose and turn around and slap his daughter for doing the same mere seconds later, able to vent in private but refusing to let his children be jaded as he is. Writing about what Clooney does here is extremely hard, because he doesn't use any of the tics actors employ for this stock kind of performance. He doesn't tremble, doesn't act outwardly aggressive, doesn't go numb. Instead, he deals with each reaction as it hits him, even if they're only seconds apart, but he also continues to operate in the world around him, not retreating as such characters often do.
But Clooney isn't the only standout here. Besides the two fantastic performances by the actresses playing Matt's daughters, The Descendants boasts a number of character actors putting in fantastic work. Nick Krause initially takes up space as Alex's spaced-out, rude boyfriend, but a small exchange between Matt and Sid late in the film completely alters the way Matt (and the audience) perceives the boy, and Krause doesn't have to change his performance at all to handle the shift. Beau Bridges appears as a cousin looking for that payout from the land trust deal, the kind of affable burnout so lively and easygoing you never feel as sorry for him as you probably should. Best of all is Robert Forster, who plays Matt's father-in-law but just as easily could be Matt's dad for how completely Forster taps into Clooney's wavelength. Forster essentially acts out the film in miniature, experiencing the full emotional range in only a few minutes of divided screen time. He, too, holds his tears, but he does not hold his tongue, and his vicious rants put Matt and Alex in their place just when they start to absolve themselves of any culpability in their positions.
Indeed, in its elegant view of grief, The Descendants also broaches the subject of responsibility and the need to settle one's affairs, even if they are of one's family. Matt must contend not only with his dying wife and his troubled children but that trust of land passed down through generations until those who own it not only don't look Hawaiian but cannot speak the language. But they were still entrusted with it, demanding more than just financial considerations in its handling. That point is humanized at the film's climax when Judy Greer's character must handle an issue of her husband's that proves the most harrowing moment of the movie. It is precisely these mature actions that make the seemingly sorrowful ending one of hope and affirmation, confirming this as Alexander Payne's best work to date and one of the finest American productions in years.