The newest film from Alexander Payne (2004’s Sideways) cements his status alongside Akira Kurosawa and Krzysztof Kieslowski as one of the great humanist writer/directors. The film is best summed up in a bit of voice over by land baron/patriarch Matt King (George Clooney in yet another memorable and award-worthy performance) that correlates the family unit with the film’s Hawaiian setting. It’s such an important point that I won’t quote it in full, but it illustrates how, like the archipelago, families are clustered together yet always drifting apart. A lovely metaphor that is punctuated by both tragedy and renewed unity throughout The Descendants.
The film opens with a fleeting shot of a smiling woman on a speed boat who turns out to be Matt’s wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth spends the rest of the film in a coma, Payne never shies away from painful closeups of her unconscious face, that she won’t be awakening from as Matt deals with the fallout alongside his daughters, impressionable 10-year-old Scottie (first-time actress Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (The Secret Life of the American Teenager‘s Shailene Woodley) who is forced to grow up in a manner that differs from her pre-film acts of youthful rebellion. Alexandra’s pal Sid (Nick Krasue) also tags along though his character’s literal presence is limited to stoner-like one-liners that often feel out of place. The group travel around in search of the man with whom Elizabeth had been having an affair while Matt contemplates the upcoming sale of a large amount of virgin land that his family inherited from their Hawaiian ancestors. They encounter Elizabeth’s parents (Robert Forster gives a standout performance as her hard-nosed father), Matt’s cousins who include the likes of Twin Peaks‘ Michael Ontkean and Beau Bridges, and finally the adulterer himself (Matthew Lillard in a surprisingly convincing performance). The hearts of audiences will warm and break as the threads tie up in the only reasonable manners available and the family’s journey is ultimately reflected back upon the viewer in a brilliant final shot that illustrates the joy and futility of life itself.
Payne has created what is easily the most human film of the year, if not the past few years. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another seven films for his next outing.
The Descendants opens today at the Ritz East.