The range of emotions on display in The Descendants hints at the emotional complexity of Alexander (Sideways) Payne’s engrossing script (with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) and the adroit playing of George Clooney, surely a cert to win this year’s Oscar as best actor.
Clooney is Matt King, a stand-by parent with two daughters who suddenly has to step up to the plate when his wife is hospitalised in a boating accident.
Coping with a comatose wife is bad enough, but Matt is also at the heart of a multi-million dollar land deal that will see a chunk of family real estate sold off.
With squabbling cousins on one side, Hawaiian locals on the other and years of history determining his actions, Matt is between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
But what about his children, Alex and Scottie? Matt hasn’t a clue how to deal with his girls – Alex a stroppy near-adult, Scottie a brittle teen? And when Alex drops a bombshell involving her mother, Matt is thrust into an even bigger emotional and psychological crisis.
The Descendants is a near-perfect movie. It is bright, witty and painfully real. Payne expertly manipulates the mood as Matt ricochets through high drama to subversive, gentle comedy. There is a bedside scene in the hospital that is as bitter, raw and unexpected as anything (not) seen in most Hollywood flicks where mawkishness would cloak and corrode any semblance of realism.
The film is also packed with first-rate support in the form of Beau Bridges, Michael Ontkean, Robert Forster, Nick Krause and Matthew Lillard as Matt’s nemesis. Payne has cast his net wide and delivered on every character.
In The Descendants Payne layers on the detail. Matt, a fortysomething man, is forced to grow up, leaning on elder daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) for support. He can’t do it alone. And his journey to the only conclusion possible – “Everything has its time,” observes a tired Matt – unleashes a torrent of conflicted feelings.
This is a film about love and death and the whole damn thing. It is beautiful and heartrending and raw. It is also honest and contains possibly the very best performance Clooney has ever given. And that’s saying something.