|Brad Pitt is off camera wearing a skirt...hence the look.|
Films like The Descendants take a rather large measure of courage to make. Simple human dramas free of storytelling or visual gimmicks that actually achieve a measure of heart are harder and harder to find anyway, but what percentage of those ever feel like they capture the messiness of family life and the confusion that comes with loss and new beginnings?
Hollywood is the land of perfect little bows at the end of every story. The ending isn’t always happy (though that’s what audiences always demand), but the conclusions are supposed to arrive without ambiguity, without loose ends. It’s supposed to happen because moviegoers demand that it happens, because no matter how much ranting and raving against the blockbuster establishment you hear, most of the people in the theatre around you really don’t want the movies to be more like real life.
The Descendants never second guesses itself when it comes to the story it’s trying to tell. It never hedges toward Hollywood predictability, never tries to wrap things up simply and neatly. It’s not just a film about how messy the great dramas of our lives can be. It’s a film about why it matters that they’re messy, and why sometimes we need it to be that way.
Matt King (George Clooney) is a Honolulu attorney in way over his head. His wife is in a coma after a major boating accident, and he’s not prepared for life as a single parent. His youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is acting out in a number of hostile ways in the wake of her mother’s accident, while his eldest Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) doesn’t want to see her mother at all after a mysterious fight the pair had sometime before the coma.
On top of this, Matt is overseeing a real estate dealing for a large parcel of “virgin” Hawaiian land that his family has maintained in a trust for decades. They’re descendants of Hawaiian royalty, you see, and this is all that’s left of the family legacy. Odds are the land will become a tourist spot, but all Matt’s concerned about is keeping his army of cousins happy with the sale.
Then two bombshells hit Matt over the course of two days. One, delivered by a doctor, is that his wife will never make up, and a provision in her will calls for her to be taken off life support. The other, delivered by Alexandra, is that before her accident her mother was having an affair.
What follows is a funny, heartbreaking and often chaotic journey in which Matt, accompanied by his daughters and a kid named Sid (Nick Krause), attempts to track down the “other man” in his wife’s life, find some closure, and learn to be a better father.
The key ingredient to nailing the tone of such a story was always going to be director Alexander Payne, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Payne is a master of bittersweet stories, as films like Sideways and About Schmidt prove. Both of those films are about men who have lost something too – faith, a loved one, confidence, youth – but neither of them go quite this deeply into the realms of confusion and dizzying frustration. Imagine needing so badly to confront someone that can’t answer for themselves, but their body is still right there, hovering over every decision you make. Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) never speaks, and she’s only shown with her eyes open once (in a flashback) throughout the entire film, but her presence lingers behind Matt’s eyes for every frame of this film.
Payne chooses to begin the presentation of this dilemma by having his hero spout a brief diatribe about people who think that Hawaiian citizens live out their days in a paradise. Matt King has a few choice words for paradise, and it’s very clear that he’s not living in it. Yet Payne fills his visual compositions with reminders of Hawaiian beauty, creating a duality that only makes the film more fascinating. By the time it’s over, you realize that The Descendants wasn’t just about beauty next to ugliness. It was also about beauty inside the ugliness.
The other key to the film is Clooney, who gives the performance of his career by becoming a believably ordinary man pushed to his emotional limits. The strong leading man melts away here, and in its place is a performance of absolute vulnerability and pain punctuated by subtle but often crackling humor. The other standout is Woodley, who matches Clooney in nearly every scene with an emotional depth many actresses twice her age can’t muster.
The Descendants is a challenging film for some viewers, but if you simply allow it to carry you on its journey of heartbreak, redemption and, ultimately, love, you will be amazed by the genuine heart you find. It’s a film of aching beauty and power from one of our most gifted directors.