It’s been seven years since we last saw Alexander Payne behind the camera. With his last film (Sideways) becoming a critical darling and Oscar lightning rod, Payne disappeared from the limelight. Payne’s lack of a presence on the film landscape was felt. At the time of Sideways, he was a director who deftly balanced biting humor with an emotional resonance that gave his films surprising depth. Very few directors since Payne’s departure have been able to capture the heart and humor that he continuously brought to the table. Now, Payne is back and nearly better than ever in the form of The Descendants, a film that continues Payne’s streak of “road trip” films. Relatively speaking, this isn’t a road trip film like Payne’s previous efforts, but there is a great deal of geographical distance covered by characters seeking a roadmap to heal their emotional scars.
At the forefront is Matt King (George Clooney), a real estate lawyer that is the head of a family trust that overlooks 25,000 acres of Hawaiian land. In an attempt to buck a law seven years in advance, Matt, along with his entire extended family, are looking to sell their stake in the land for nearly half a billion dollars. Unlike his family members, Matt’s interest in money is minimal. He chooses to get by on what he earns from his practice. In his mind, this ensures his two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), aren’t spoiled rotten. The guilt he has over inheriting a beautiful stretch of land has found its way into the rearing of his children. Unfortunately for Matt, his extended family matters become complicated when his wife, Elizabeth, is sent into a coma via a boating accident. With his wife laying lifeless in a hospital, and his extended family forcing him to sell their land, Matt is struggling to maintain control of his life. Considering that he’s basically a single parent and his daughters are in different life stages, Matt is hopelessly swimming into the tide. To no one’s surprise, his knowledge of his daughter’s psyche is more like a cement block tied to his ankles than it is a buoy keeping him afloat. Thankfully, Matt trudges along like a soldier…only to have his world rocked again when he finds out that his wife was actually cheating on him.
Matt’s unwavering affection for his wife is left to drown in the tenacious waves of life. Lost, alone and yearning for at least some form of retribution, Matt seeks out his wife’s lover, Brian Speers (Matthew Lillard). Matt’s search is partly built on trying to understand how his wife’s scandalous activity came to be. But it’s also a trek intended to tell Speer’s that his secret lover is close to death. The boiling marital conflict within Matt is beautifully rendered by a screenplay that gets stronger when he swallows his pride and protects his youngest daughter’s image of her mother. Even more gut-wrenching is Matt’s interest in repairing a rift between Alex and her mother, while anger burrows in his heart. And it’s this reason that Matt King is George Clooney’s richest performance. By rummaging through Matt’s anger and uncompromising love for his daughters, Clooney effortlessly reaches an emotional equilibrium in every scene. With his long, peppered hair, Clooney simply makes it easy to look past the actor and into the life of a man trying to do right by his family and contrasting feelings.
It also doesn’t hurt that Clooney is working with Payne. Together they deliver an ample amount of humor to offset the film’s more depressing moments. Nearly usurping Clooney is Shailene Woodley. Known mostly for her role on the ABC Family show “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”, Woodley bursts on the scene as a foul-mouthed teen whose spiteful personality is underscored by an endearing loyalty to her father. In the same way that Clooney delivers an emotional balance to Matt, Woodley does the same for Alex. Tender, volatile and all together vulnerable, Woodley daringly explores the baggage that emanates from her troubled character. In conjunction with Clooney, Woodley personifies the balancing act that Payne has perfected over the years. But what’s most impressive about Payne’s work in The Descendants, as well as his previous films, is that he’s always able to give each character an opportunity to surprise us.
In the case of The Descendants, there are a handful of characters that we find grating or irredeemable, but Payne forces us to look past their crude veils. In a well-choreographed scene between Matt and Alex’s un-official boy toy (a daft Nick Krause), Matt’s expectations of the man-child are erased when a secret is shared. Suddenly, a kid whose vocabulary is unmercifully entrenched in “bro lingo”, delivers an unexpected insight that takes Matt aback. Within moments like this, Payne demonstrates the care and interest he has in each character. This notion is further pushed by Payne’s disinterest in vilifying Elizabeth. Based on her unscrupulous behavior, Elizabeth could be seen as a sinful rat. It’s a fair appropriation on some level, but she’s also an invested mother. Payne makes sure this doesn’t escape Matt’s mind or our own. By this token, Payne is able to craft films that aren’t monochromatic. Through their flawed, but wholly humanistic characters, we get films that are as colorful and inviting as a Hawaiian landscape seen on a postcard. The only difference is that we eventually throw away the postcard, where as a film like The Descendants isn’t easy to dismiss.