It’s been about 7 years since Alexander Payne took up the director’s seat with his 2004 film Sideways. Quirky, offbeat dramadies are his forte. He possesses a delicacy with his direction. Payne’s ability to balance raw emotion and subtle humour is unique, and uniquely intriguing. He also isn’t afraid to let actors use expressions rather than words. This is the secret to the success of The Descendants, his best film to date.
The Descendants deals with the aftermath of a tragic accident that leaves a wife and mother in a coma. The film is essentially a scrutiny of the family unit: a father desperately trying to hold everything together as it comes apart at the seams, balancing dealing with loss, betrayal over his wife’s infidelity and reconnecting his two daughters. The family is torn apart and dissected, the cracks are laid bare and the nerves are left exposed. It is an affecting story, sad without being maudlin. The path that the troubled family take towards consolidation is touching and exposed, but most of all subtle and believable.
Every character has depth, which is difficult to do in a 115 minutes. Clooney’s Matt King is lost. Not only is his heart broken, his family is breaking too. Clooney is exceptional at handling the raw emotions and humour demanded by the script and easily switches between them. There’s a subtlety to his character that we haven’t seen from Clooney in a while. Shailene Woodley is pitch-perfect. Playing a troubled teenager on a self-destructive path usually ends up being one dimensional, but Woodley has the tools and ability to play the teenager with a keen sense of right and wrong. She is an accumulation of adolescent rage, but it’s not trite nor is it cliché. Props must also be given to the young Amara Miller who plays Matt’s youngest, Scottie. Another talented child actor who will, hopefully, be gracing our screens for years to come.
The film is at its best when it blindsides you with humour during the most poignant scenes; or when they are handled with comedy rather than drama. There are many fine comedic moments throughout. A stand-out moment is an exchange between Matt (Clooney) and his wife’s lover Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). What should be a deeply emotional scene is rendered awkward, uncomfortable and blackly humourous.
Tight direction, career-defining performances and a beautiful script make this a utterly engaging piece of filmmaking. Thoroughly deserving of the praise that’s being lauded onto it.