Many have noted (including the Academy) the strength of George Clooney’s performance in The Descendants, and how the former is essential to the latter. Immediately coming to mind is Clooney’s role in Up in the Air, about a travelling corporate “henchman” whose job is emotionally wearing him away. The connection is worthy, since the latter film, by Jason Reitman, relies as much on Clooney as Payne’s new one does. But when considering the performance style and narrative shape, we must recall Clooney’s role in Michael Clayton.
Clooney’s Matt King in The Descendants suffers the loss of his wife who’s now on life support with no chance of survival. This news comes just before he learns, from his daughter, that his wife had been cheating. Estranged from the daughter, who attends a special school due to her drug use, Matt finds a rare opportunity to reconnect with her as they hunt down the “other man.” Clooney takes up the archetypal role of unofficial investigator, with a younger sidekick in tow. Though the film offers a fine portrait of character growth, it’s allotted by the crime-themed structure of the avenger film.
Similarly, Clooney’s title character in Michael Clayton begins the film already broken, having lost his chance to establish a restaurant as an escape from his job as a law-firm cleaner. He becomes more fragile after learning that his friend/associate Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has had a breakdown while defending an evil corporation. At first assisting the corporation to return their “killer” defender (Edens) to work, Clayton takes up an unofficial investigation upon learning of Edens’ sudden death. Already something of a hunter, Clayton searches for his own spirit, and in the process renews his relationship with an estranged son, much like Matt and his daughter in The Descendants.
In Clayton, Clooney is a fugitive, his car exploding as the film starts in medias res then flashes back. Meanwhile, Matt is a Hawaiian lost at home, even if one with the fabric. (Descending from a family with deep roots in the state, he also holds a trust to the largest remaining area of undeveloped land.) Both films present the death of one close to the respective Clooney role, a fissure that upsets the foundation of each character and calls for his vengeance, to reestablish order. While each wrong is righted, the eventual goal for each character is a long shot. The Descendants ends with Clooney sitting aside his two children, staring towards the camera. They can rebuild through time and unity, though the memory of mother’s infidelity will make it harder. Similarly, the truth to Clayton is oppressive, as he also finishes his film staring towards the camera, here in the back of a taxi which he’s instructed to drive aimlessly.
The corporate world is corrupt for Michael, as is the world of personal relationships in The Descendants. By confronting UNorth, Michael has broken a “no disclosure” contract with his firm, and will pay financially as well as spiritually. Matt shows his daughter more than she needed to see and, though serving her juvenile sense of vengeance, has jaded her in the long run.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. His book, The New American Crime Filmis forthcoming with McFarland.
Read Jacob Mertens’ review of The Descendants here.