The Descendants (2011)
Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller
Synopsis: A land baron tries to reconnect with his two daughters after his wife is seriously injured in a boating accident.
The brief opening shot of The Descendants is of Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie), an attractive, vibrant woman smiling broadly as the boat in which she sits traverses a crystal blue sea. It’s an important shot because it provides the audience with a contrast to the slack-jawed comatose woman over which her family grieve as they try to deal with a range of complex emotional issues. Her husband Matt (George Clooney), a lawyer faced with caring for their two daughters 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), has grown distant from his wife in the years leading up to her accident, and our brief glimpse of the healthy Elizabeth gives us a deeper understanding of the unbreachable chasm between the woman he used to know and the one that lies before him, and the sense of loss he feels for a love he can‘t recover.
Director Alexander Payne is very good at depicting flawed men learning to come to terms with their deficiencies, and under his direction George Clooney’s performance is a marvel of understatement, one in which he’s called upon to demonstrate the internalisation of his emotions without resorting to tearful over-emoting. But then Clooney is perhaps one of the few leading men working today who possesses the intelligence and innate instinct to pull off such a challenge. When Matt is informed that his wife will never regain consciousness, Clooney’s expression undergoes a delicate, barely perceptible shift as he hunches his shoulders slightly, but this minimal emoting is a hundred times more powerful than tears and shuddering sighs, and conveys perfectly the deep pain his character is experiencing. Clooney is also unafraid to eschew the matinee idol persona that often dogs his higher profile performances, and adopts the unassuming, slumped-shoulder stance of a middle-aged man, complete with greying hair and unflattering silver stubble.
The other key characters in the movie are King’s daughters. Both Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller deliver performances that complement one another’s. Each is entirely believable, thanks to an insightful screenplay from Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash which gives each of them endearing but unique personalities which, while recognisable as typical of kids of their respective ages, never come close to stereotypical. Woodley’s character, however, does show a surprising amount of inconsistency compared to the other characters; a typically bolshy and rebellious teen when we first meet her – she’s been shipped off to boarding school because of her behaviour with booze and boys – her moody behaviour and antipathy towards her father evaporates when she reveals that her mother was having an affair, a revelation that serves as a springboard for Matt’s subsequent voyage of self-discovery as he attempts to track down his wife‘s lover. Alexandra’s rebellious behaviour dates back to before the moment when she saw her mother with her mystery lover, so the transformation of her character comes across as a shade contrived.
The Descendants is one of those movies that involves you so deeply with its characters that you find yourself repeatedly speculating on how you would react if you were placed in King’s position. Not only does he have to contend with the infidelity and imminent death of his wife, and the irascible ill grace of his spiky father-in-law (marvellously played by Robert Forster), but his large extended family are in the midst of discussions over the sale of a tract of land that will potentially make millionaires of them all. It seems like a straightforward transaction, but unexpected developments eventually pose a moral conflict for King. The decision he makes is difficult and unpopular, but one which reveals the depth of character and admirable sense of responsibility he possesses.