Alexander Payne returns to screens for the first time since 2004’s Sideways, with a work that while cut from the same cloth, is ultimately quite the diversion for the Nebraskan filmmaker.
The Descendants charts the life of Matthew King, a man coming to terms with the impending death of his wife. As he struggles to come to terms with it himself he must repair a fledgling relationship with his daughters and come to terms with a couple of devastating revelations concerning his wife’s fidelity. Concurrent to this runs a subplot involving the sale of a piece of familiar land, with the preface that “everything has its time” a dual memoranda for the dueling issues taking hold of King’s life.
The Descendants marks Payne’s first venture in to foreign lands. Well, Hawaii. The Hawaii presented openly eschews the tourist money shots and dream vacation perusing in favour of giving us an inside in to the “reality” of the island(s). It may seem like an odd film to draw comparison to, but one couldn’t help but think of the portrayal of Australia in this years’ Animal Kingdom when considering Payne’s portrayal of Hawaii. King openly acknowledges audience expectations of a tale set in Hawaii, ultimately summing up his feelings with an aggressive declaration of “Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself“. Alas, while the golden beaches of Kauai may be rendered murky and grey by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography, one in never especially far away from the expected clichés of Hawaiian shirts and sandals.
For all of the visual flair, its Payne’s script (written along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) that impresses the most. Based upon Kaui Hart Hemmings’ book of the same name, the script is note perfect, and an accomplishment in itself. Payne impresses with the way in which he manages to maintain a balance between the conflicting emotions on display throughout the whole of The Descendants. At times the film is earnest, at times it is sad and at times it is irate. It never veers too close to the sentimental, and I was left ultimately feeling rather satisfied with the work enough to deem it sincere, which is always the ultimate measure of such a film.
The cut of the film runs to this emotional spine, with abrupt, angry cuts driving the viewer between sequences when hysteria is presented on screen, and smooth, pleasant connections made between the more serene moments. Beautiful time-lapse photography is used to convey just how wonderful the topography of the Hawaii islands truly are, and just how much contradiction and beauty lies in the strangest of places. Graveyard’s sit next to skyscrapers, and untouched landscapes are ripe for the picking by entrepreneurial developers thanks to responsibility distanced distant relatives of the pioneers of the land (in turn giving The Descendants it’s title). The film is scored to the eternally pessimistic strings of the tropical hymn, the familiar strings of the steel guitar, again riding upon stereotype, bringing with it a jarring, yet completely apt tone.
George Clooney is the central protagonist and turns in a great performance. The actor features in every scene, playing a middle age father for what might be the first time (was he middle aged in One Fine Day?). The support is equally able, with Amara Miller as Scottie, the youngest of the King clan managing a decent balance and never too precocious. The highlight of the supporting cast might just be Robert Forster, as the wizened father of the dying women at the heart of the film. Yet for all of the success of the films supporting ensemble it is Clooney who stands out the most, as the noble figure who protects his dying wife’s legacy in spite of himself. Sure, it could be accused of being a little bit worthy and a tad overwrought, but it’s a likeable, charming work and a well made one to boot.