By Jacob Mertens.
At the beginning of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, George Clooney’s disembodied voice hovers over idyllic imagery of Hawaii, warning the audience that the content of the film will not compliment the scenery. The film soon cuts to a series of shots: clogged traffic, an urban sprawl laid flat over paradise, a dilapidated house looming on the outer edges of a beach. In The Descendants, the audience must reconcile the staggering beauty of Hawaii with the grit of reality, and beyond this point the film confines this asperity to the aesthetics of a hospital room. Outside the hospital, the beauty of nature bursts through, uninhibited by tiki bars and luxurious houses plopped down in the sand like crass totems.
In the film, George Clooney plays Matt King, who struggles to cope as his wife lies in a coma after a boating accident. Additionally, Clooney’s character faces the moral dilemma of whether or not to sell a large parcel of undeveloped Hawaiian real estate, which he has inherited from his family. The film tells you all this through overt voice over that abandons nuance for clarity. In truth, I struggled through the first thirty minutes of this film because of the cloying narration, which adopts a “let’s lay it all out on the table” mode of storytelling. It seems unnecessary given Payne’s masterful ability to convey expositional information through small details, and the beginning of the film can feel dull and uninspired because of it. However, as the turn develops, Matt discovers two vital plot points:
- His wife will not survive the coma.
- His wife has been having an affair and was planning to leave him.
Shortly after this point, Clooney’s spiritless voice over drops out, freeing the actor to discover his emotions without the aid of a plot heavy stream of consciousness.
The comparison between the first thirty minutes and the rest of the film illustrates a stark distinction between life as one sees it and life as it is revealed to be, and the film greatly benefits from the shift. However, I would be remiss if I failed to point out one particularly affecting use of the voice over. As Matt tends to his wife, he begs her to wake up in an internalized voice over, unable to emote out loud. However, after learning of her affair, Matt rages at his unconscious wife and tells her he had planned to leave her too and that he was not happy in the marriage. The earlier voice over, while unconvincing at the time, provides a nice contrast between rote and genuine emotion. As Clooney’s character speaks out loud to his wife, he discovers his feelings through the action. The affair allows him a chance to truthfully evaluate their relationship, while everything up until this moment has been dictated by how the character feels he should behave under the circumstances.
Payne takes this initial discovery and proceeds to craft an incredibly dense and complex series of scenes. For instance, immediately following Matt’s own tirade he allows his oldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) into the room. Alexandra has her own reasons for bearing a grudge, having discovered the affair to begin with, and so she rails at her mother as well. However, her father immediately curtails the tirade, chastising her for treating the situation without respect. The audience sees that Matt hears the venom of her words and feels ashamed of his own behavior. In this scene and in others, Matt attempts to instill in his daughters a respect for their mother that he can no longer muster, afraid that his own sentiments will poison their view of her.
As the movie progresses, Matt attempts to track down the man who stole away his wife’s affections, Brian Speer (played with surprising credibility by Matthew Lillard). Matt brings his daughters along and carefully shields the affair from his youngest, as his eldest Alexandra acts as confidant and motivational force. Meanwhile, the impending real estate decision looms over his interactions with everyone outside his immediate family. At first glance, this subplot feels superfluous and unnecessary, but as Matt realizes that Brain stands to gain a great deal of money from the sellout, the two storylines merge together nicely.
In particular, Matt’s confrontation with Brian represents the culmination of Matt’s internal struggles. Matt feels that he should tell Brian that his wife is dying, allowing Brian to say goodbye. However, Matt also feels the need for retribution. He takes pleasure in Brian’s discomfort as he invades his home under the false pretenses of business, with Brian’s wife talking to his daughter on the porch outside. Matt threatens to reveal the affair, forcing Brian to admit that he never loved Matt’s wife and to beg him not to destroy his own family. Matt takes up the mantel of nobility, but as he says goodbye to Brian’s wife he kisses her softly on the lips before leaving. The scene plays out with careful pacing and understated acting, hitting home like a sledgehammer. Matt yearns to be the bigger man but he simply cannot do so, and he takes vengeance in a sweet and delicate way, the only way the character could ever manage it.
Finally, Matt’s final decision with the property plays out as the overarching metaphor you would imagine it to be, but this is not the film’s true resolution. Instead, the credits roll as Matt sits on a couch with his daughters, sharing a blanket and eating ice cream, watching a movie on TV. In these final unassuming moments, we gain a glimpse at a family beginning to mend and grow from a complicated grieving process. In fact, throughout the film Payne showcases an unusual ability to illuminate self-discovery and grief in a natural way. Matt’s mundane routine sparks to life as he struggles to keep both himself and his family from unraveling, and as the film moves through set pieces that highlight the unreal beauty of Hawaii, it almost feels as if nature subverts the careful reality that Payne labors to depict. The contrast creates a fascinating viewing experience, as if a subtle narrative were gaining the properties of a myth.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Read also Matthew Sorrento, ‘From Where Clooney’s Oscar Nominated Role Descends’.