Alexander Payne strikes me as the sort of person who’s incapable of making a bad film. Limited body of work aside, critical success is critical success (which is to say nothing of Payne’s commercial victories in Sideways and About Schmidt), and with his darkly satirical examinations of contemporary American culture Payne has established for himself a sterling résumé over the last decade and a half. Which makes The Descendants, his first effort in seven years, the sort of end-of-season release worth taking sharp interest in; taken purely at face value it’s an answer to the question of whether Payne can maintain his record of excellence as a filmmaker after such a long break from directing.
Of course it turns out The Descendants is much and more than that, which should handily satisfy any queries of the sort. The film may best justify its existence by leaving us scratching our heads as to why Payne doesn’t make more movies when he’s so adept at the process in tandem, marking only the fifth film of his career. You’d think that the cosmos boasted enough space for one Payne film in between now and 2004. Perhaps we should just be grateful for the films he does make. If he made more movies, he might lose his consistency.
Which would be a shame, because The Descendants shows what a great filmmaker can do when he’s on-point and focused– though an argument could be made that Payne’s latest feature is his most rambling. While the film sprawls, it does so deliberately and with clear intention; every frame leads logically to the film’s resolution and builds effortlessly on its central narrative about one man’s bereavement and his struggle to reconnect with and redefine both his life and family, the latter element being the most essential to the film’s structure. In another filmmaker’s hands, The Descendants may have felt discordant and tangled; Payne, however, instills the picture with an effortless, adroit harmoniousness.
The title refers to the King clan– not just the contemporary detachment of Kings, comprised of George Clooney’s patriarch Matt, his two daughters Scottie and Alexandra, and a smorgasbord of cousins who we never get meaningfully acquainted with (outside of a spectacularly slimy Beau Bridges), but their ancestors as well. The Kings of present day hail from Hawaiian royalty, though they little resemble that distinction; their only tangible connection to their predecessors lies in a vast expanse of land that’s belonged to their forebears for close to two centuries, and which Matt’s kin is pressuring him to sell. Being the sole trustee, he has all the power; being a man who’s generally disconnected from life, he has all the inclination to give in to the majority and sign the land away for renewed family fortunes.
But Matt’s preoccupied with the more pressing matter of his wife Elizabeth’s comatose state in the wake of a boating accident. Life’s walls are closing in on him– his family unceasingly hounds him over the land deal, his doctors are preparing to remove Elizabeth from life support, his daughters barely know him as a person much less a parent when both he and they desperately need the support system family provides. Worst of all, Elizabeth maintained a lengthy affair before her injuries put her out of Matt’s reach and rendered her unable to answer his hurt and his anger; as we meet him, he’s beleaguered, bedraggled, and worn down.
The Descendants‘ derives plot from tragedy, but eschews a somber atmosphere; instead the film mines for hope, specifically in Matt’s renewed relationships with his daughters. Traces of the cutting human parodies found in many of Payne’s other films abound, but those elements don’t shape the tone of the story significantly enough to be dominating. The Descendants, through exploration of Matt’s circumstances, flirts with darkness without succumbing to it, just as Matt strives to confront and overcome his personal pain rather than allow it to bury him. Put succinctly, this is a film about facing grief by facing ourselves.
It’s also about family, namely the discovery of the people who comprise family. Though in frequent contact with his army of cousins, Matt finds his ultimate comfort in the two children he fathered and has since overlooked. As he puts it, he’s the back-up parent, a distant authority figure and a symbol of household stability than an engaged, involved dad. His relationships with Scottie and Alexandra are both distinguished by an overt sense of unfamiliarity; Matt’s clearly more comfortable with work and his role as trustee than he is with fatherhood. But The Descendants appears to be arguing that none of that matters; at the end of the day, your family consists of the people who come through and support you no matter what, while others claiming familial bonds only care so long as you’re oriented on the same goals.
Unsurprisingly, Clooney is fantastic here, changing gears and playing on the back foot rather than the type A figures he usually plays, but his isn’t the best performance of the film. That honor goes to Shailene Woodley in the role of Alexandra, Matt’s more caustic older daughter. There’s a fine line to be walked when bringing frustrated teenagers to life to avoid making them feel petulant, but Woodley performs that task with amazing ease and makes Alexandra charming, humorous, and justifiably angry while perfectly selling her transformation to the mess of a person she’s introduced as to someone on their way to becoming whole– just like her dad.
The Descendants concludes on an appropriately optimistic and sumptuous note of reconciliation as Matt curls up on the couch with his daughters to watch TV and enjoy ice cream; death’s looming presence dissolves and the trio quietly embrace the comfort of family, taking solace in one another. Payne’s pointing to the familial as the means by which we survive tragedy, but Matt also finds the strength to endure in the bond he develops to the land– which cinematographer Phedon Papamichael sweeps over with his camera, as though to emphasize what it is that Matt’s giving away in his real estate dealings. Payne’s working on a macro level here, spanning generations to tell his story; The Descendants might not be his best film to date (though the jury’s out on that one), but it’s his most far-ranging and an easy fit alongside his past works.