THE DESCENDANTS Review
Suffused with sadness and an overwhelming sense of melancholy, The Descendants explores yet another corner of Alexander Payne's United States. It's a cinematic country notable for the beauty of its landscapes and the exquisite anguish of its inhabitants.
Narrated by and starring Matt King (George Clooney), the story explores the strangely related dyanamics of personal relationships and property ownership. Matt can trace his ancestry in Hawaii back several generations, to the marriage of a native islander to a white missionary in the late 19th Century. Matt, an attorney specializing in real estate transactions, has become the sole trustee of the family trust, which controls ownership of the last great, undeveloped property on the Islands, 25,000 pristine acres on Kaui. By government decree, the trust will be dissolved in seven years, so developers are salivating at the prospects. The vast majority of Matt's many, many cousins are eager to sell, and it is left to Matt only to sign over the property; he has already announced that he will accede to the wishes of the majority at an upcoming family vote.
Coincidentally, Matt's beloved wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has fallen into a coma after a boating accident, and just as he's absorbing that news, he is informed that she will not wake up from the coma. Because she executed a legal document expressing her choice not to be kept alive by artificial means, life support will very soon be discontinued. So in the same time frame in which Matt must make a major financial decision with far-reaching implications, he must also deal with the death of his beloved, longtime companion, and all that that involves, especially as regards their two daughters.
Both girls are troubled to different degrees: Scottie (Amara Miller), 10, is a bully, while 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley) has been sent away to an expensive private school on another island to sort out her problems, which include drug addiction. Matt brings Alex home so she can help him as he breaks the news about Elizabeth to their extended family, most notably Elizabeth's acid-tongued father Scott (Robert Forster) and dementia-affected Tutu (Barbara L. Southern).
Complicating matters still further is the gradual revelation that all was not well between Matt and Elizabeth, and that she harbored a big secret that affects their entire relationship.
Based on a critically-acclaimed 2007 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, with a screenplay credited to Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, The Descendants is beautifully soul-crushing. Though Matt is the narrator, he is not omniscient, and he is a woefully ignorant parent. For example, he is powerless to stop Scottie from spouting profanity at inopportune moments, and as soon as Alex returns home, it becomes crystal clear that she's been a much greater influence in the younger girl's life than the ineffectual Matt.
Rarely has the absence of a family member been drawn with such acuity. Obviously, Matt left much of the parenting to Elizabeth as he island-hopped and carried on his legal business. Matt believes in being industrious, and in not spoiling his children, so he is willing to pay $35,000 annually for Alex's tuition, but doesn't want to give her, or Scottie, much spending money, or lavish expensive gifts on them or Elizabeth. Nonetheless, they live in a beautiful home on a beautiful piece of property; they are wealthy, but Matt tries to pretend that they're not.
The financial restraint he exercised also seems to reflect his manner of doling out emotional intimacy: barely enough to survive, occasionally a little more, but nothing extravagant. And that hasn't been enough for his children, and may not have been sufficient to satisfy his wife.
The film unspools with a calm serenity, even as it pushes into syrupy emotional territory. For the first time in his filmmaking career, Payne wades into unironic sentimentality, and sometimes it overwhelms the story, especially in the latter stages. This is Payne's baby, written without Jim Taylor, his usual colloborator, and it's missing some of the duo's dark comedy stylings, the type of black humor that has rescued bleak and sad situations from the brink of bathos with self-aware absurdity. The soundtrack, sourced from gently-warbling Hawaiian musical artists, reinforces the sentimentality.
Clooney makes Matt King a personable, thoughtful, imperfect leading man, and he does some of his best work without dialogue, where the pain of the slings and arrows he's suffered are written large in his eyes. Shailene Woodley is extraordinary effective as his teenage daughter, wary of her absentee father's sudden involvement in her life and bitterly angry toward her mother. Robert Forster conveys a prickly, vital personality, which makes it easy to imagine that he passed those qualities on to his now-comatose daughter.
Emotional indulgences aside, The Descendants resonates deeply. Matt King is forced to take a good, hard look in the mirror. He doesn't necessarily like what he sees, and must wrestle with his darker inclinations on behalf of his family. Because without family (of some kind), what have you got?
The Descendants is now playing in limited release in the U.S. It opens wider across the country next Wednesday, November 23.