Mark Reviews Movies

The Descendants


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Alexander Payne

Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Rob Huebel, Mary Birdsong, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Patricia Hastie, Beau Bridges

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual references)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 11/16/11 (limited); 11/18/11 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 17, 2011

The husband must know how to say good-bye to his wife. The crux of The Descendants is as simple as that, really. He has the opportunity, as she is lying in a coma in a hospital bed, slowly wasting away as the doctors realize they can do no more for her. She has a living will in effect that states she does not want to be kept on life support if the odds of recovery are against her, and no one in her family disagrees with her decision. Obviously, they wish the situation were not as it is, and as such, they have a tendency to blame other people.

Her father blames the husband. If only he had bought her a boat like she wanted, she wouldn't have been out with someone else—a stranger, for all that the father knows. Maybe something similar would have happened, but at least then he could have been righteous in blaming his son-in-law for the accident. Instead, it's just impotent indignation, and—what's worse—the father is smart enough to know it.

One daughter blames her mother. Why would she be out doing such a thing with a friend when surely her husband would take the time out of schedule, if only she had asked? Of course, the daughter knows more than the rest; she knows her mother had been carrying on an affair for who knows how long (not with the guy driving the boat). Does the daughter perhaps partially blame herself for further driving her mother away from the family? After all, if the two had not had a fight about the affair, maybe the daughter would be at home and not at boarding school.  Maybe the two of them could have been doing something safer at the time.

There are plenty of questions put forth by screenwriters Alexander Payne (who also directed), Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash (working from Kaui Hart Hemmings novel), who seem intrinsically to understand that it is those unanswerable questions that preoccupy the minds of the survivors of tragedy. They rarely ask them aloud, and if and when they do, it's in the form of a declaration: "You did this. It's your fault. If only you had done something different, or if only you hadn't done that one thing." It's perhaps a more difficult situation for these characters than if the wife had died immediately or soon after her misfortune, because there's now the additional feeling of complete and total helplessness accompanying it—knowing the woman they knew and loved is still alive but unable to communicate. She will die and soon.

Only the husband Matt King (George Clooney) does not hold anyone responsible for his wife Elizabeth's (Patricia Hastie) accident. He makes a point of telling Troy (Laird Hamilton), the man who was driving the boat at the time, that he does not blame the guy. He certainly doesn't blame his elder daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), with whom his wife had the fight and who informs him that she spotted her mother with a local realtor named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). She knows the two were intimate because of the way they touched going into his house.

Matt is determined to find Brian and confront him. He doesn't know what he plans on doing when he meets him, though he knows he will have plenty to say when he does. Meanwhile, he must make arrangements to tell Elizabeth's friends and family that she is dying and to visit her while they still have the chance, and he has to find a way to tell his younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) that her mother is dying. Finally, there's a major land development deal of which he's in charge; he and his many cousins are the heirs of an unspoiled stretch of land on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i—passed down through the generations from the family of the last king of Hawaii. They've all decided to sell the land, and it's only a matter of signing the deal.

Payne's direction is wholly empathetic to these characters. Even Elizabeth, whose extramarital activity sends Matt into this downward spiral of doubt, is the subject of the film's first scene—a medium shot of her bright smile as she bounces on the waves with the beautiful scenery of Hawaii behind her (Phedon Papamichael's cinematography treats the views as both picturesque and commonplace) before disaster strikes. From Matt's own admittance, their relationship was rocky as of late; he was too busy working to even notice or, at the time, care that his wife might be cheating on him.

His father-in-law (Robert Forster) is a hard man, but when he arrives at his daughter's hospital bed to see her for the last time, Payne keeps the camera hovering in the slightly open doorway to capture a tender kiss on the forehead. Alexandra's friend Sid (Nick Krause) tags along as rough comic relief, but a nighttime scene between him and Matt reveals that the kid might be wiser than his years and behavior suggest. Brian's wife Julie (Judy Greer, very good in a small role) has an emotionally draining scene in which she too bids farewell to Elizabeth—an act of kindness that has more than hint of resentment to it once the words start flowing.

In Clooney, The Descendants has a backbone of anguish and basic, human decency. It's not only a performance of delicate poise but also the prism through which we can observe the other characters' slow progress through the grieving process.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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