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Written by: Sam Fragoso on November 25, 2011

November 25, 2011 | 21 comments | Featured, Old Format

The Descendants

There is no reason for death. And within the proceedings of before and after death, there is no reasoning. I say this – not in hopes my philosophical assumptions rub off on you – but because my point is so clearly understood and defined in Alexander Payne’s newest film, The Descendants. A bittersweet tale of infidelity, death, family, friendship, absent relationships, obtaining tranquility, accepting realties, and all the heartache of loosing someone you love.

In his strongest endeavor since Sideways in 2004, Payne paints an affectionate portrait of man whose life is a mess. Set in multiple locations of Hawaii George Clooney plays land baron Matt King – a father of two and husband to Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) who (as the film opens) has gotten into a tragic boating accident putting her into a coma.

With mere medication and life support keeping Elizabeth alive, Matt along with his two children – Scottie (Amara Miller) a confused pre-teen and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) a unique, though frustrated teen – come together to spend the few final days with their mother who is likely not to survive.

Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come. Matt, after being scolded by his older daughter, finds out that his wife has been cheating on him for quite some time with Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) – a local real estate broker.

This disheartening realization springs a trip for the family to Kauai – the island where Speer and his family is residing. The purpose of the journey is unsure. With conflicted emotions and ideas, Matt is indifferent towards the whole ordeal. Who should he be upset with: His wife who went behind his back or Speer who used her for vapid sex, while falsely promising a future to her? And honestly, at this point in time, what is making a fool out of Speer going to do?

Matt is pragmatic, but at the very least wants to see what his wife chose over him. Lets be candid here – even those, like myself, who far from the line of homosexuality can emphatically tell you that there isn’t a woman in the world who would leave George Clooney for another man. This isn’t an opinion, but rather a fact of life.

Though, these are just Matt’s personal quarrels. As if things couldn’t get anymore convoluted in his life, King is a descendant of a large sum of land. However, Hawaii wants to sell it – as does a majority of King’s middle class family waned and infatuated with money.

A family looking over the land they may have to sell in Alexander Payne's "The Descendants"

The personal and financial conflicts naturally coil together. With pressures coming every which way and family members attempting to balance the loss of Elizabeth and the riches they could soon be basking in, it’s a mix bag of feelings.

Thankfully, the film is far from mixed in terms of critical and personal response. The Descendants is unquestionably one of the better films to be released this year.

Perhaps some of the ideas employed here are not all that unique, but the execution most certainly is. Payne has a knack for creating intimate portraits of people dealing with personal conflicts, but this is a different exploration of cinema.

The Descendants – unlike Sideways, About Schmidt, or Election – is a beautifully lyrical film: more about the editing and how the shots are arranged and put together, rather than the narrative. Another nuance is how it leaves the viewer time to reflect and think about what the characters mean and say to each other. There are pauses within scenes – this doesn’t slow down the story, but rather enhance the purpose of it all.

Rating: ★★★½

The Descendants

The Descendants (2011)

Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller

Director: Alexander Payne

Writer: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon

Runtime: 115 minutes

Genre: drama, comedy

Trailer The Descendants


There are 21 comments for this post.

  1. NeverTooEarlyMP on November 25, 2011 11:05 am

    Great review Sam! This one is guaranteed to get several Oscar nominations, and I think it will win for screenplay, and possibly actor/picture/director if the rest of the year stays slow. They also do a good job of using the comedy and editing to keep our emotions running all the way to the end.

  2. Duke on November 25, 2011 12:03 pm

    It will certainly garner some Oscar consideration.

  3. Matt S. on November 25, 2011 12:43 pm

    Great review, glad to see the high score. I have yet to view this film, as it probably won’t be arriving to a theater near me anytime soon, haha

  4. Duke on November 25, 2011 1:04 pm

    Did you ever catch this one Matt?

  5. Steven Flores on November 25, 2011 2:26 pm

    Correction: It’s Matthew Lillard.

  6. Duke on November 25, 2011 2:30 pm

    Thank you Steven

  7. Page on November 25, 2011 2:53 pm

    This is one of the films I’m actually anxious to see so I appreciated your review.

  8. Duke on November 25, 2011 3:09 pm

    Hopefully you got a chance to check it out.

  9. Dan on November 26, 2011 6:54 am

    As a huge fan of Sideways I have been looking forward to this for what seems like years. Payne has been quiet for far too long.

  10. Duke on November 26, 2011 7:10 pm

    I agree completely.

  11. Dan O. on November 27, 2011 9:13 am

    This was a very good film mainly because of the great balance of light comedy and heavy drama, and of course the performances from everybody involved, especially Clooney. Good review Sam.

  12. Duke on November 27, 2011 10:07 am

    Eloquently stated.

  13. Scott Lawlor on November 28, 2011 1:16 am

    I am very much looking forward to this opening here now. Thanks Sam

  14. Duke on November 29, 2011 3:31 pm

    Thanks for reading guys.

    Come back to share your thoughts when you do get to see this.

  15. Andrew on December 13, 2011 9:07 am

    Loved this. I think it’s a tie for “best Alexander Payne film” with Sideways, but most of all it’s one of my favorites this year. I like very much what The Descendants has to say about grief and moving on from emotional pain and, maybe most importantly, the nature of family and how a time of crisis can really shine a light on who your family really comprises. Even though Matt’s estranged somewhat from his daughters, they still come together to support each other; meanwhile, the cousins– with whom Matt appears to have more of a functional relationship– threaten him when he doesn’t do what they want him to.

    And it’s photographed beautifully, too, some of my favorite shots of the year.

    Great review Sam! Really happy to see this getting the love it deserves.

  16. Duke on December 13, 2011 5:37 pm

    I agree that it certainly does say a lot about grief and moving on.

  17. Jan Meyers on December 17, 2011 1:06 pm

    Loved the review ,Sam. I’m just waiting for the film to view near me so I can see it. Will let you know how I like it. (Of course I am a Clooney ) but not so biased as to see the film just because he is in it.

  18. Duke on December 18, 2011 11:48 am

    Another film I’m sure you’ll definitely enjoy.

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