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.
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.