The Descendants, 2011.
Directed by Alexander Payne.
Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard and Robert Forster.
Matt King is a Hawaiian property lawyer who just so happens to be a descendent of the original native royalty of Hawaii. His family has inherited some of the most valuable untouched land in the archipelago and he’s in charge of facilitating the biggest property sale in the history of Hawaii. King is an absent father and a detached husband and without warning his wife is injured in a boating accident that leaves her comatose. As her health deteriorates the reality of their relationship, his deficiencies as a parent and the horrible reality of finding out that his wife was having an affair.
Writer/Director Alexander Payne’s previous works are renowned for presenting deeply flawed characters in a realistic light. Election, Sideways and About Schmidt are all critically acclaimed for their ability to follow wholly unlikeable characters through seemingly mundane environments and making it all compelling: Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) from Sideways, Warren (Jack Nicholson) from About Schmidt, and Tracey Flick (Reece Witherspoon) from Election.
Payne delves you into the Hawaiian physical and social landscape of the island community to give you Matt's working and environmental context. In a way, Payne then has to provide us and the fairly clueless Matt (at this point) with an insight into his family. His youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is a rough and tumble tom-boy who's acting out by verbally bullying fellow students. And Matt's eldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) has been housed in a boarding school away from the family for being troubled - or so you're initially led to believe. Payne's structure let's you journey through Matt's assumptions and grow through and be awakened to his actually reality. You're filling out Matt's reality because he realises that he's closed himself off from everything.
Enter George Clooney's Matt King, a performance that will possibly gain him an Oscar. Does it live up to the hype? Personally I think his performance as the titular character Michael Clayton will be the performance of his career - but he does some more career best work here with The Descendants. However, knowing the strange moods of the Oscars - he'll be very tough to beat. King's a great character for Clooney. It's a subtler and purposefully restrained performance. Clooney is pitch perfect and really unpredictable as King. He's forced to project deep internal turmoil with an introverted character. The character's arc is great to show off Clooney's range - King is required to deal with grief, traverse the perils of (now single) fatherhood, the rage of betrayal, spite, discovery, and moments of restraint to protect the ideal of his wife in the eyes of her family despite what he's discovered. It's definitely a performance that will stay with you long after you see the film.
The resonance of the characters isn't exclusive to Clooney's Matt King - Shailene Woodley is staggeringly good as Alexandra. It was the best supporting performance by a female actor that I saw last year. Her character requires an immediate and necessary growth and level head with the pressures of this situation and her performance delivers flawlessly. Matt is lost and at times leans really heavily on his eldest daughter for guidance - Woodley's Alexandra receives and absorbs the pressure and is able to fulfil her whimsical teenager and familial rock with the delivery of much more weathered performers. The fact that the performance holds steady (and in my mind exceeds) Clooney's performance may give you an indication of just how good it is.
The supporting cast is fantastic. Nick Krause's Sid (the stoner rock and companion of Alexandra) brings a much needed like to some of the darkness in The Descendants, for the characters and the audience. Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) plays Matt's father-in-law - damaged by the grief of a wife with dementia and now a daughter in a coma lashes out at Matt at every opportunity. Every line is barbed and hits you with such great affect that you don't know what Matt is going to do. It's a performance that punches far above the given screen time. And finally the surprise packet is Matthew Lillard's Brian Speer, who was having an affair with Matt's wife focus and become's a necessary cathartic figure for the film. Lillard previously starred in She's All That, Scream and Scooby Doo - so his brief reactionary performance packs more of a punch if you're familiar with his lighter fare.
The Descendants is a devastating and rewarding emotional journey. Fans and critics of Payne will argue vehemently that this is his best and equally that it doesn't stand against his other works. As will reviewers and critics speaking of Clooney's performance. The Descendants is a film that was over-hyped for me prior to my initial viewing. But in writing about it, and remembering the performances, it's a film that resonates on a lot of levels and I'll definitely be revisiting it.
Blake Howard is a writer/site director/podcaster at the castleco-op.com. Follow him on Twitter here: @BLAGatCCO.