I didn’t know much if anything as to what The Descendants (2011) was supposed to be about when it was released end of last year. I didn’t connect the director Alexander Payne with Sideways (2004) or About Schmidt (2002), etc. I thought it was a mainstream Hollywood film wrought with conflict and humor that would ultimately dance its way to an easily happy ending. My mistake for interpreting its Award Nominations and Wins with such an idea. For some reason, I didn’t follow curiosity over the trailers’ ambiguities with movie reviews at Roger Ebert’s site, or The New York Times. Carl V over at “Stainless Steel Droppings,” mentioned the film was more Art House than Hollywood, and I knew I would see it. And to be truthful, the experience is easier when your expectation is that the film is traditional Hollywood fare. As A.O. Scott notes, “the most striking and satisfying aspects of The Descendants are its unhurried pace and loose, wandering structure.” If you are not into unhurried and wandering, the film will drive you up the wall. As it is, The Descendants requires the attentive viewer who engages in helping the film create greater meaning and in ultimately interpreting its full story.
Matt King’s wife had a boating (race) accident which throws her into an irreversible coma. He must not only come to grips with the loss of her, he must find ways to tell their daughters, family, friends–and the man with whom Elizabeth King was having an affair–a revelation provided by his eldest daughter who caught her mother in the act. Ever the “back-up” parent, Matt must now deal with the knowledge he is now the only parent–of daughters. The eldest, Alexandra (“Alex”) at 17, her mother’s daughter, is brought home from boarding school; where she is tucked away to be rehabilitated from drug- and alcohol-abuse, and promiscuous behavior. The youger, Scottie at 10, is essentially ignored and left to the endemic that is the sexuality-obsessed female grade-schooler of today.
Matt King isn’t just your average citizen of non-paradise, but a successful real estate attorney, heir of Hawaii’s last queen, and current sole trustee of a 25,000 acre tract of virgin land on Kuau’i. He and the cousins are concurrently trying to figure out to whom to sell, before their hand is forced by a rule against perpetuities.
The Descendants moves through the slow disintegration and death of Matt’s marriage, his wife’s condition, the land that is his legacy–paradise, childhood, wildness and beauty. Simultaneously and just as quietly, it follows the slow healing of a father’s relationship with his daughters, the legacy of memory and culture, of family, of love.
The focus of the narrative does not move from Matt King (George Clooney) as central protagonist. It only shows and reveals that which is of import to Matt’s story and progression throughout the film. While no other character is unremarkable or forgettable (quite the opposite), the story is, for all its scope, quite singular in focus. The film moves away once, and it is pre-opening credits with Patricia Hastie as Elizabeth King vibrant with life and joy, presumably moments before she is thrown from the boat. Otherwise, every meeting with a new or other character is subject to the movement of the plot (and its segues). The youngest (Amara Miller) will be introduced and established, and then disappear or become hardly consequential until 20-30 minutes later. The eldest (Shailene Woodley) comes on screen, and spends a good amount of time satisfying the plot, but she is as easily set aside when necessary. None of the transitions feel forced or callous, but noticeably different–especially considering how much characterization is built in mere moments and via brilliant acting.
The Descendants spends an inordinate amount of time on medium close-ups. It is kind of uncomfortable. The audience is not allowed very much distance or objectivity. You cannot sit far enough away. The Descendants is unapologetically subjective and determined to make things personal with the audience. No pretending we cannot relate on some if not most levels of what is going on. The portrait is necessarily intimate, as are the subject-matters and their implications for the characters and the audience.
Matt King: [voice-over] Paradise? Paradise can go f* itself.
The film also differs in that the people are normal and relatively unlovely by Media standards. This is likely the most frumpy and average you’ve seen Clooney in recent years (if ever). The only other beauty is the eldest Alexandra. And notably the film spends most of its footage with these two. Is it that Shailene Woodley was so riveting because she is a talented actress, or because our eyes ached for someone pretty? likely both. That they cast Amara Miller for Scottie is both culturally fitting, but also the not wiry or pale is marvelous and refreshing. Man I love her lack of self-consciousness, and her dark curly hair and those freckles! When Matt King’s opening voice-over criticizes the mis-portrayal of Hawaii as paradise, he is questioning everyone’s misperceptions of flawlessness: the islands, individuals, careers, marriages, family, childhood, legacies–everything. Flaws or break from “type”needn’t make a person, place, or thing unlovely. In fact it creates depth and saves the characters and film from the vapid.
Matt King: What is it that makes the women in my life destroy themselves?
Parallels are drawn between what is endangered. The slow and inevitable death of the wife, who is regarded as wild and strong and irrepressible, and the virgin land. Because of the eldest’s acknowledged doubling with her mother, and her ability to mature morally (as the film progresses), we have hope of her temperance, which would ultimately mean her survival; thus we can have optimism regarding potential solutions for the land. That the youngest is no longer excluded in her connection to the land (will get to enjoy its familial legacy) and female companionship (a maternal sister), she is redirected from a destructive path. The father has decided to be a good steward rather than the distanced owner. Roles and responsibilities can be re-constituted and explored. There is time for change. There is time to revisit our choices, our pasts, presents, futures.
What it means to love is necessary explored in endangered (and even lost) relationships. To be a descendant necessitates a relationship, and it implies a legacy. The Descendants interrogates relationship and it interconnectedness. What is one’s rights and responsibilities when it comes to a legal contract, a marital one, a parental, a sexually intimate, a friendship? How does ownership and stewardship differ? The intertwining is necessary because the treatment of one subject does affect the others. How we believe it should be and how it is is laid bare. How and where do we assign value?
The Descendants visits the collision between wholeness/brokenness, old-fashioned values/cultural depravity, respect/vulgarity. It hosts a world of motherless daughters (even Elizabeth’s mom is essentially absent), where mothers are essentially memories/ghosts–a criticism I find intensely interesting. “I don’t want my daughters growing up entitled and spoiled. And I agree with my father – you give your children enough money to do something but not enough to do nothing.” Matt King says this at the beginning of the film, acquainting us with his life as he knows it. And it seems wise. But it implies an understanding he doesn’t really have. He has been the “back-up parent” and workaholic; living on cultural assumptions. The film is a study in how men have yet to adjust or confront current conditions and challenges. No, Sid, he can’t exchange his daughter for sons, however fatherless, they too, appear to be. Instead he must re-evaluate his beliefs, his understandings, and his decisions; regardless of the wide range of emotion and circumstance that gets him there. As Roger Ebert observes, director and co-writer Alexander Payne has a “special affinity for men learning to accept their better feelings.”
George Clooney. Most, including me, would say Clooney gave an incredible performance. As the film is intensely character-driven, the success of the film hangs upon its actor’s abilities. Clooney proves more than capable to emote during those long close shots.
And George Clooney? What essence does Payne see in him? I believe it is intelligence. Some actors may not be smart enough to sound convincing; the wrong actor in this role couldn’t convince us that he understands the issues involved. Clooney strikes me as manifestly the kind of actor who does. We see him thinking, we share his thoughts, and at the end of “The Descendants,” we’ve all come to his conclusions together.
Dana Stevens (for Slate) wonders if Clooney was a casting misstep. “Clooney, like Angelina Jolie, may be becoming a prisoner of his own Olympian looks and fame—even shambling around in shorts, flip-flops, and a goofy floral shirt, this man is self-evidently not a schlemiel.” Stevens’ concerns go further, and I quote it because she may have a valid point.
The script (co-written by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash) vaguely alludes to the character’s shortcomings as a father and husband without ever fleshing them out. If a woman’s going to cheat on George Clooney with the likes of Matthew Lillard, we’d better have a good idea of why. Was Matt a workaholic, as he claims in his opening voice-over? (We certainly don’t see him spend a lot of time practicing law.) Was he a sexually withholding husband, as his perpetually angry father-in-law (a terrific Robert Forster) obnoxiously insinuates? Virtually every moment of the film is spent in the company of this character, yet we come away not really knowing who Matt King is—not because, like Paul Giamatti’s romantic misanthrope in Sideways, he’s richly self-contradictory, but simply because he’s underwritten.
We do see Matt working throughout, and he does have offers by his eager cousins to put off the sale a little longer in order to deal with the wife’s death, but Stevens does rightly observe the stereotype with which Matt’s character is culled, but never confirmed outright. Still, I felt the character too familiar to be underwritten. Was it because I was engaging in the gaps? Upon closer examination, every character is a caricature, a representative, a shadow of a familiar. Everything we learn about Elizabeth that is beautiful and not is through other people and setting. She is completely drawn via others’ actions, memories, conjecture. They (and audience) assign her value. Should Matt be exempted as the central figure? The script announces its intentions to play with expectations, thus assuming it has expectations to play with. What do you think (if you’ve seen the film)?
i feel as though this screen -still is even more vivid than I remember.
The cinematography. Director of photography Phedon Papamichael (also of Sideways) does not afford Hawaii any special glamour. He doesn’t even deepen the focus or enhance with a heightening contrast when the family is surveying their tract of land. We notice what Matt King notices. There are a few vistas (when necessary, in flight, etc.), but for the most part, the setting gets the same treatment as the human landscape, close, unflinching, and normalizing.
If you are a fan of good performances and beautiful settings and understand going in that this isn’t necessarily going to be your typical polished Hollywood offering, I suspect you will find much to like. I have actually grown to appreciate the film more after a little distance, and the end scene was worth the price of admission to me.–Carl V.
The ending. The narrative does not undergo a perfect framing. For instance, there is no closing or summarizing voice-over narration by Clooney/King. There is one, in a way, by Morgen Freeman and March of the Penguins. The excerpt was functional in that it was incredibly appropriate. There is no ‘the end,’ but a continuation; the optimism is tenuous, but present nonetheless. Other frames, like the introduction to a conflict and its eventual “resolution” do not keep an order of appearance and disappearance: land sale, coma, troubled Scottie, troubled Alex, etc. to better Alex, better Scottie, land, death. The escape from structure into wandering makes for an uncomfortable unpredictability that fits all too well the film’s themes.
There are times when you laugh or gasp in disbelief at what has just happened — an old man punches a teenager in the face; a young girl utters an outrageous obscenity; Mr. Clooney slips on a pair of boat shoes and runs, like an angry, flightless bird, to a neighbor’s house — and yet every moment of the movie feels utterly and unaffectedly true.–A.O. Scott.
The lack of affectation is uncomfortable, and carried off better than many an Art House effort; I’m especially grateful in its avoidance of resorting to mockumentary or the hand-held camera.
The Descendants(2011), directed by Alexander Payne; written by Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash; based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings; director of photography, Phedon Papamichael; edited by Kevin Tent; produced by Jim Burke & Payne; starring: (Matt King), Shailene Woodley (Alexandra King), Beau Bridges (Cousin Hugh), Robert Forster (Scott Thorson), Judy Greer (Julie Speer), Matthew Lillard (Brian Speer), Nick Krause (Sid), Amara Miller (Scottie King), Mary Birdsong (Kai Mitchell), Rob Huebel (Mark Mitchell) and Patricia Hastie (Elizabeth King); released by Fox Searchlight.
Running time: 115 minutes. Rated R for for language including some sexual references.
Links & Reviews: IMDb, Wiki, film site. Carl V. (“Stainless Steel Droppings,” Jan 2012) “The Descendants“; Dana Stevens (Slate, Nov 2011), “The Descendants: George Clooney’s immense likability, and other reasons Alexander Payne’s new film fails to deliver.”; Roger Ebert (Nov 2011) “The Descendants“; A.O. Scott (The New York Times, Nov 2011) “For One Man, Hawaii Is a Land of Problems.”