Alexander Payne's The Descendants might be the most problematic yet essential film of the director's career. On its surface the film is about grief, but the emotions here are more complex. There's anger, disillusionment and isolation, but there's also a rich family heritage and the breathtaking Hawaiian landscape hovering over the proceedings.
A woman named Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) lies at the hospital in a boating-accident induced coma. Who is she? Liz's husband, Matt (George Clooney), is left wondering the same thing. We never meet her, except for a small glimpse at the very beginning of the film. Matt thought he knew her, but now he's not so sure, and over the course of the film we learn there's a lot more to Elizabeth than her family realizes.
What's fascinating is how the Elizabeth character dominates The Descendants without uttering a word. We feel like we have a good grasp of her personality early on in the film. She has been comatose for over a month, yet no one seems too distressed about it. "She's a fighter," they all say, assuming it's only a matter of time before she wakes up. (It isn't.) What makes The Descendants so remarkable is its understanding of the ways a person lives on as fragments in the minds of others — and everyone has a different point of view. To her close friends, Elizabeth was a strong woman trapped in loveless marriage. To her teen daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), she was a fraud. To her youngest daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), she was just mom. But Matt's opinion changes from scene to scene, and he soon fears he never really knew his wife at all.
To complicate matters, Matt's family has just weeks to finalize a multi-million-dollar deal to sell a pristine chunk of land inherited from their ancestors. Emotionally, financially, and even environmentally, the stakes are high at all times, yet the tone remains as mellow as a day at the beach. The Descendants takes its time and isn't afraid to take a few detours to introduce new and interesting characters.
This is Alexander Payne's first film in seven years (his first since the 2004 indie juggernaut Sideways). It's understandable that he would be hesitant about his next project after such wild acclaim, and it's to Payne's credit that he chose the right material. Plus, he's getting better at filming drama. There are more than a few heart-wrenching scenes here and they are acted and shot to near perfection. Special props go to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who proves adept at showing both Hawaii's messy real world and its otherworldly landscape.
But Payne's past penchant for broad satire (Election, Citizen Ruth) hasn't completely left his system, and the director can't help but write a large number of caricatures into the narrative. That's not as bad as it could be (the grotesques paraded in About Schmidt make that film borderline unbearable) but they're still there: Alexandra's stoner boyfriend who says stupid things at the wrong times, Matt's 10-year-old daughter with the potty mouth, and the tough-as-nails father-in-law who just has to punch someone in face. These are all cheap and unnecessary bids for laughs that create awkwardness and distract from what's really happening on screen. Thankfully, the film finds its groove after an uneven first half-hour that comes loaded with excessive expository narration.
All that said, the most crucial scenes in The Descendants are well done and without cheap comic diversions. By the end, we have a rich and realistic depiction of internal lives in crisis and a catharsis that feels truly earned. That's rare in movies today.