It has been seven years since Alexander Payne’s last film Sideways and while that film is probably good enough for Payne to hang his hat up forever (especially since he also has Election and About Schmidt to look back on), another will always be welcome. The Descendants is his new film, already a big winner at the Golden Globes and one of the favourites at the Oscars. But does it match up with Payne’s greatest work?
George Clooney plays Matt King, a wealthy landowner living in Hawaii who works tirelessly at a law firm until an unfortunate accident forces him to re-evaluate and reshape his life. Following a speedboat accident, his wife Elizabeth is in hospital in a coma. It is unlikely that she will come out of it, and King must prepare for the worst as well as reconnect with his two daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) from whom he has become estranged.
In a way, The Descendants is typical Alexander Payne material, with a normal, middle-aged guy forced by circumstances beyond his control to reassess his life. The film is full of the bittersweet comedy and pathos that one would expect, though The Descendants might just be Payne’s most humanist work. While Sideways puts Miles and Jack through the wringer in order that they might come out the other end with slightly more wisdom than they had before, The Descendants is much more about a character opening up and seizing what is really valuable in life. Where before Payne may have verged on the misanthropic, here he offers a film about a man rediscovering his priorities in life that is much more conventional than his previous films.
However, The Descendants is far from the typical feel-good Hollywood of forced smiles and empty, hectoring life lessons, if not in its subject matter, then in its approach. Payne underplays everything, not unlike in Sideways. Where certain scenes would surely be loud and hard to bear if played as Hollywood deems they should be, Payne substitutes silences, gestures and a palpable and infectious love and understanding for his characters. The film can be funny and cynical, but it refuses to either judge or sentimentalise. The film does tug at the heartstrings, but it is the kind of film that does so quietly and with subtlety, sneaking up on you rather than pushing the obvious buttons. Ultimately, it is a slow, somewhat melodic film, one to which it would be doing a disservice to assign basic genre categories and conventions. Through great pacing, brilliant writing and great performances, it is a film that defies its simplistic storyline and its generic trappings, becoming a much more profound, truthful and effective film.
The Descendants works because it is sincere about what it is telling us. It is also beautifully paced and shot and filled with excellent performances from all the actors, working on what might be the best script in the last few years. It will surely divide audiences as many may find themselves immune to its charms, but as a simple, immersive and touching film with real characters and maybe even with something to take away and apply to your own life, it is hard to beat and might very well end up as the film of the year.