Brad Williams is an inveterate film buff who also writes for WhatCulture.com
Matt King (George Clooney) is a man with a lot on his plate. Sole custodian of the proverbial family gold mine, all eyes are on Matt as the deadline approaches to sell off a massive plot of Hawaiian land. To make matters worse, one month ago his wife was in a boating accident, leaving her in a coma ever since. Life before the accident was rocky and unfulfilling, but now Matt has to become the father he never knew how to be, the husband he always should have been, and the man his father always intended.
For someone who cut their teeth making soft core Playboy shows, Alexander Payne has come a long way fast. It may have taken 26 years to get to this point, but with a filmography of only five feature length films, Payne has become one of America’s best kept secrets. Somewhere between David O. Russell and Wes Anderson. If you don’t know who the man is, it just means you don’t watch film credits properly. No doubt you will have seen one of the following – Election, About Schmidt, or Sideways. Payne is a very unique talent in that he does not pursue flashy visuals, arty composition or narrative time warping, but somehow manages to give his film a very unique signature.
Never one to spray his scent over every frame, Payne fine-tunes his characters and gives them an atmosphere that is funny and fractured and absorbing. His characters are often broken men in the second half of their years, shaken up by muted life altering events, they are walking paradoxes who become more real to us than we’d care to admit. Warren Schmidt of About Schmidt inhabits a slightly dreamlike yet oddly chaotic world, whilst Miles from Sideways lives in a reality rich with smell, taste and colour, but somehow manages to see past it all at the grey mundane lull of a midlife crisis. Matt King’s world is a mixture of the two. Colourful yet distant, chaotic yet dull, Matt surrounds himself in normality, yet fails to see the immense madness around him. Part of Alexander Payne’s talent as director is not in how he chooses to frame a shot, but rather it is in how he chooses to use dialogue.
Ironically, at a time when a certain silent film (The Artist) is at the top of everyone’s ‘must see’ list; The Descendants is a film which can easily rival it in brilliance, mainly due to the film’s dialogue. There are varying degrees of beauty in how Payne tells the story – based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel. Without wanting to give too much away, some of the film’s best moments come when the characters are being completely insensitive or angry.
Very rarely does a film have numerous ‘brilliant’ scenes, but The Descendants is easily one of those rarities – with each ‘favourite’ scene being swiftly and rapidly replaced by another. One particular moment which manages to encapsulate the entire tone of the film is when King finds out a secret which his wife has kept hidden. Payne seizes the opportunity to play through a kaleidoscope of emotions that range from the ludicrous and comical to the downright depressing. He does what many directors fear to do, and that is he lets his characters say and do mean things without actually meaning them. As an audience, we come to understand the King family dynamic so implicitly that to hear Alexandra King (Shailene Woodley) call her young sister Scottie (Amara Miller) a twat, is akin to hearing them say ‘’I love you’’.
Despite the opening monologue of King pooh-poohing Hawaii as just another place, location plays a key role in the film’s charm. Beautifully captured by director of photography Phedon Papamichael, Oahu beams as if it were a hot young actress. Hawaii is a very captivating and bewitching place, so it would have been easy for Papamichael to create postcard images or BBC documentary landscapes, but the true key to Hawaii’s beauty is in its humble and pure aesthetic. There is no need for dramatic sunsets, high contrast and increased exposure, because simply framing the image correctly will bring out all there is to be had in this magical land – and that’s exactly what Papamichael does. The Descendants is not all plain sailing, there are one or two moments when the graceful and effortless wonder begin to sink. It’s in these moments that Payne’s lack of willingness to change pace create a lag. But these are very few and far between.
Much in the way that peers such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson have a knack for picking a concrete cast, Payne’s choice of Clooney, Woodley and Miller as the main cast is faultless. Magnetic and loveable, each of the three main leads take a bite of the script and savour every moment. Woodley’s sass and vulnerability make her a perfect substitute ‘wife’ for Clooney’s Matt; after after all Mrs King spends a large chunk of the movie in a coma. Miller is reminiscent of Little Miss Sunshine’s Olive, with her abstract behaviour and puppy-fat charisma.
Then there is the pepper haired mega star himself. Clooney spends parts of the film as a cross between his turn as Ryan Bingham (Up In The Air) Lyn Cassidy (Men Who Stare at Goats) and Chris Kelvin (Solaris). But there are moments, genuine moments, when Clooney outdoes himself – stepping away from all he has done before, to craft something original. It’s probably safe to say that the one-tone, Brad Pitt-esque Clooney of Ocean’s-period is long gone. He has flirted with evolving for a while now, and it’s his role as Matt King that really shows the potential of something new. One shining moment for Clooney comes near the film’s final scene; watch it and just try not to be moved. Truly inspiring. The rest of the cast each provide wonderful additions to the film’s power and chemistry and, as controversial as it sounds, Nick Krause’s turn as Sid is potentially one of the best supporting roles in recent years. His contribution to the film could be the difference between an Oscar nom and an Oscar win.
For a director who is partial to taking ambiguous moral dilemmas and playing them for laughs, Payne shows his evolution with The Descendants. What could easily become a maelstrom of clichés and cathartic indulgences becomes something very pure and heartfelt. It is touching without being touchy, and honest without being sickening. It is now your new favourite Alexander Payne film… and this time you know who he is.