It's a rare bird of a film that can elevate itself so distinctly between a first and second viewing to make a reviewer back-flip on their original estimations. The Descendants is such a film. On my first viewing, I could tell that it was an impressive effort but for whatever reason, the devastating emotional impact was a glancing blow. A second time viewing hit me like a speed boat. As with any Alexander Payne film you come to expect a terrific script that casts you off into an ocean of ‘grey area’ with typically vivid living and breathing characterisations (attracting great performers). However here’s five reasons why returning to Hawaii and to George Clooney’s Matt King elevated The Descendants to the Five Star pantheon.
1. George Clooney
Unfortunately two of Clooney’s greatest performances as the titular Michael Clayton, and Matt King in The Descendants coincided with Daniel Day Lewis’ Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood and alongside Jean Dujardain in The Artist otherwise, in this reviewer’s opinion, there’d be two more golden Oscar statues on his shelf. Matt King is a man blissfully in the dark about who his family is. With the blinders of a thriving law practice and him attempting to escape the scrutiny of his family's legacy; he exists on a parallel plain to his wife and daughters. The accident that debilitates his wife thrusts him back into the stark reality of being an absentee father and a victim of infidelity.
The humility with which Clooney carries Matt King during this emotional and psychological catastrophe is powerful. During this ordeal, Matt’s (Clooney) also charged with the future of his family’s vast and priceless land inheritance on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. In the midst of his battling his own demons he must decide how to responsibly handover the land to future generations. He battles with the contrasts of his family’s ‘entitlement’ and director Alexander Payne’s able to load a colonial inquisition atop the intimate struggles the family legacy. There’s really not a more humiliating or emotionally wrenching situation than having your wife in a coma; that is until you find out that she’s been cheating on you with the intention of leaving you. There are so many instances throughout the film that Matt has an opportunity to warp the memory of his wife for the friends and family being affected by the tragedy. He’s being dragged through the realisation that he’s an inadequate husband and father. His subtle redemptive struggle comes to the surface most in his moments of restraint.
2. Remarkable support
Amara Miller is terrifically authentic as the petulant little tomboy Scotty. Her journey from frustrating tween bravado, to the devastation of maternal loss and the jolting shock of fast-forwarding childhood is a lot of ground to cover for a young performer and she is tremendous. Nick Krause’s stoner sage Sid is a great pressure release that however inappropriate, attempts to defuse the tension with humour. But once again the surface exterior yields the wounds of young man coping with the untimely death of his father and doing whatever he can to project his zen toward Alexandra (Woodley). And yet the most impressive member of the cast (save for Clooney) is Shailene Woodley. Initially, the guise of drunken rebelliousness is peeled away to reveal a head strong, empathetic, mature soul.
3. A world of Payne
If you’ve seen other films from co writer/director Alexander Payne you’ll know that interested in the struggles of real flawed characters in emotionally and morally complex situations. The direction immerses the audience into vivid authentic spaces for his performers to shine. He backs performers into corners for their characters to show their true colours. Just as he did in About Schmidt and Jack Nicholson’s reaction to the letter from his sponsor child; Payne forces Clooney, Matthew Lillard, Woodley and Robert Forster into the dark crevasses of their soul and allows the audience to bare witness. It’s claustrophobic and exhausting but it’s a compelling style.
4. “This is a uniquely dramatic situation”
It’s not only a breakout for Shailene Woodley, writers Nat Faxon (most notably Milkshake from Reno 911) and Jim Rash (who some of you would recognise as Dean Pelton from Community) decided to try their hand at screenwriting and were recipients of the Academy Award. Faxon and Rash first adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel of the same name, featured on the 2008 ‘Black List’ (a list of the most popular unproduced scripts in Hollywood).
5. “Goodbye, Elizabeth. Goodbye, my love, my friend, my pain, my joy. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.”
In the wake of the agonising reality of his life, and the self-imposed lashings that meeting his wife's lover (Lillard); you're left with a swelling anticipation of how he possibly gets closure. In the final, fleeting seconds of his wife's life Matt leans in whisper a tortured goodbye. George Clooney's already towering performance hits an emotional crescendo that left me a blubbering mess.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.