Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemming, The Descendants is the story of a man dealing with a boating accident that put his wife in a coma. While taking care of his two daughters he barely knows, he deals with revelations about his wife while facing the possible loss of land that he’s inherited for many years in Hawaii. Directed by Alexander Payne with an adapted script written by Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, the film marks Payne’s return following a seven-year gap since his last film with 2004’s Sideways. Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges, and Robert Forster. The Descendants is an extraordinary yet witty comedy-drama from Alexander Payne.
After learning that his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has been in a boating accident that’s left her comatose, Matt King (George Clooney) is in shock as he has to take care of his 10-year old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) whom he doesn’t see very much due to his busy work as a lawyer. Matt is also dealing with land he’s inherited for many generations as it’s set to expire in seven years where his cousins are interested in selling it to a developer. Matt and Scottie travel to another part of the Hawaiian islands to retrieve Scottie’s 17-year old sister Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) from boarding school about the news of Elizabeth’s accident. When Matt learns from a doctor that Elizabeth might not make it, Matt tells Alexandra the news where she reveals something more startling that Elizabeth has been having an affair.
After confronting a couple of life-long friends in Mark (Rob Huebel) and Kai Mitchell (Mary Birdsong) about Elizabeth’s extramarital affair, Mark reluctantly reveals that the man she’s been seeing is a real estate agent named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). Upset over what his wife has done and overwhelmed with plans for the 25,000 acres of land he might be selling. Matt decides to tell friends and Elizabeth’s father Scott (Robert Forster) about Elizabeth’s status as the only that doesn’t know is Scottie. With Alexandra’s boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), Matt takes the girls to Kauai for a vacation while he and Alexandra try to find Brian Speer. Matt also shows the girls the land he’s been trusted to for many years as he meets his cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) who reveals some information about who might get the island if the sale will happen.
After finding Speer and learn he has two sons and a wife named Julie (Judy Greer), Matt and Alexandra try to figure out what to do to tell Speer about what happened. With only Scottie to tell about her mother, Matt faces some big decisions about his own life as well as what to do with the land that’s been passed down to him for generations.
What happens to a man when his life as a trustee to 25,000 acres of land is set to expire while learning that his comatose wife has been cheating on him? Well, that is essentially the situation that Matt King is going through as he’s a man that is being pulled in every direction while having to take care of the two daughters he’s not really close with. Eventually, he starts to bond with them as they deal with their mother’s comatose state while being joined by the eldest daughter’s boyfriend in these adventures to tell the news to family and friends about his wife. Then another adventure occurs when he takes his daughters and Sid to the land he’s been trusted to while hoping to confront the man his wife has been having an affair with.
Alexander Payne and his co-writers create a story that is about a lot of themes as well as characters who are more than what they’re expected to be. Yet, it all centers around Matt King’s revelation about himself as he’s faced with what to do about 25,000 acres of land and taking care of his daughters for his comatose wife. King is obviously a flawed man as he’s an absentee father of sorts who has no idea how to deal with the rambunctious Scottie as he asks his more troubled teenage daughter Alexandra to help out. Yet, she is dealing with her own issues and the guilt over the fact that her last moments with her mother weren’t very pleasant. For Alexandra, she and her father figure out how to tell Scottie the horrible news while dealing with the fact that her mother did cheat on her father.
While there is a lot of drama as well as great character development for both Matt and Alexandra while the characters they surround themselves with like Sid are more than just caricatures or a form of comic relief in the case of Sid. Sid, Brian Speer, Matt’s cousin Hugh, and other minor characters do get a chance to show a complex side of themselves in how they react to the news or help out in the situation. While it’s clear that the ending over Elizabeth’s fate is inevitable, it’s all about what Matt, Alexandra, and Scottie had to endure and deal where they all find some form of closure and learn to become better people in the process.
Payne’s direction is truly engrossing in the way he presents this drama about a man and his daughters while making it a whole lot more than what the story suggests. Since the narrative is told from Matt’s perspective through some voice-over narration about his own world and his faults, Payne always make sure the camera follows King in everything he’s doing. Notably a scene about the revelation of his wife’s affair as he runs to the home of his friends to confront about what they know. It’s done with a great sense of precision and framing in the way King reacts and to how the camera is placed in where he’s running to. Payne’s direction has a great degree of style for his presentation that includes a lot of light-comedic moments as well as dramatic moments.
The scene where Alexandra reacts to the news about her mother’s possible fate as she is underwater in a swimming pool is told in a very simple manner in what she is feeling. Payne doesn’t make it into something overly dramatic by just using sparse sound work to capture that moment. While the intimacy of these dramatic moments and how he presents some comical moments show the wide range of ideas that Payne can do as a filmmaker. He’s also known for making locations be part of the story as he shot the film all on location in Hawaii where he doesn’t just show the grand beauty of the island landscapes. He also shows that there’s parts of that place where it looks like a typical American city. For the scene where King shows his daughters and Sid the acres of land he’s been trusted to, it is shown with a grand style that is jaw-dropping to watch. Overall, Payne creates what is truly a mesmerizing yet heart wrenching film about a man trying to find peace in his troubled family life.
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael does a brilliant job with the film‘s photography as he gives Hawaii a look that isn‘t meant to be just beautiful. Since some of it is shot on rainy days and partly-sunny weathers, Papamichael is able to use the landscape to set the mood of what the characters are dealing with some great exterior shots while utilizing some wonderful interiors to help create tense mood such as the scene where Alexandra and Matt confront Brian. Editor Kevin Tent does a terrific job with the editing as he brings a lot of style to the editing such as a few transition wipes and dissolves to keep the pace lively and methodical as well as a few jump cuts to play up some of the comic moments of the film.
Production designer Jane Ann Stewart, with set decorator Matt Callahan and art director T.K. Kirkpatrick, does an excellent job with the look of Matt‘s home with all sorts of pictures and maps as well as Elizabeth‘s hospital room and the hotels and cottages Matt and his daughters visit in Kauai. Costume designer Wendy Chuck does a wonderful job with the costumes used in the film such as the casual yet colorful clothing that Matt wears along with the youthful clothing that Alexandra and Scottie wears. Sound designer Frank Gaeta does a great job with the sound work to emphasize the crashing waves that surrounds Hawaii to the intimate scenes where the sound work is low-key yet effective to play up its dramatic elements.
Music supervisor Dondi Bastone does a phenomenal job with the film’s soundtrack as it’s mostly carried by an array of Hawaiian folk music. Featuring contributions from performers like Gabby Pahinui, Ray Kane, Keola Beamer, Lena Machado, Sonny Chillingworth, Jeff Peterson, and Reverend Dennis Kamakahi. The music plays up to some of the emotions of the film with simple yet melodic-driven ukulele pieces as it’s definitely a major highlight of the film.
The casting by John Jackson is superb as he creates an ensemble cast that is definitely flawless. Featuring notable small yet memorable roles from Milt Johnson as Elizabeth’s doctor, Rob Huebel and Mary Birdsong as Matt’s friends Mark and Kai Mitchell, Beau Bridges as Matt’s laid-back cousin Hugh, renowned pro surfer Laird Hamilton as Elizabeth’s boat driver Troy, and Patricia Hastie in an incredible silent role as the ailing Elizabeth King. Matthew Lillard is very good as Elizabeth’s lover Brad Speer as he tries to deal with Matt as well as the fact that his affair might ruin his marriage. Robert Forster is excellent as Elizabeth’s father Scott who is upset over what happened as he tries to make Matt and Alexandra feel guilty over their issues with Elizabeth.
Nick Krause is very funny as Alexandra’s laid-back yet helpful boyfriend Sid while Judy Greer is wonderful as Brad’s caring wife Julie whom Matt and Alexandra feel sorry for. Amara Miller is terrific as Matt’s 10-year old daughter Scottie whose energetic performance brings a real complexity to a girl that seems lost without her mom while doing all sorts of things that confuses her father. Shailene Woodley is magnificent in a real break-out performance as Alexandra as Woodley brings a real maturity to a girl filled with guilt as she tries to help out her father with the news that she revealed to him.
Finally, there’s George Clooney in a tremendous performance as Matt King. Clooney strays from the charming persona he’s been known for by giving a much more serious and frantic performance as a man dealing with lots of issues. Clooney does bring some light-hearted funny moments in the film while he also proves that he can be a fool and show the anguish of frustration that his character is going through. Clooney’s best scenes are with Woodley and Miller in how he’s trying to deal with their issues while being the caring man that is just trying to be the best father he can. It’s definitely one of the best performance Clooney has given in his career.
The Descendants is a fantastic yet compelling film from Alexander Payne featuring a great ensemble cast led by George Clooney. Along with wonderful supporting work from Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, and Judy Greer. It’s a film that has Payne delving into the world of loss and redemption while creating characters that are very real and engaging. The film definitely ranks up there with some of Payne’s best film proving that he is one of the most unique voices in American cinema today. In the end, The Descendents is an amazing and heartfelt film from Alexander Payne.
Alexander Payne Films: Citizen Ruth - Election - About Schmidt - Sideways - Paris Je T'aime -14th Arrondissement - Nebraska - Auteurs #5: Alexander Payne
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