The Descendants

Review: The Descendants

02 Feb 12

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I'm conflicted about Alexander Payne's 'The Descendants'. I have spent most of the evening trying to disassociate the hype from the packaged product. As I sit here I can honestly put hand on heart and say that I'm yet to resolve my feelings about it. Sadly (stupidly maybe), I went against my better judgement and read a-lot about this film leading up to tonight's viewing. I poured over everyone from Ebert to A.O Scott and finally even Payne's own insightful musings. All minds were in agreement that the film was a cinematic triumph and, although formulaic, transcended the film's commonplace themes into new territory.

The story itself is familiar in almost any expressive medium; a marriage in mid-crisis is brought to an abrupt standstill when a man's wife suffers life threatening injuries. Matt King (George Clooney), the reluctant father, is left to support his two daughters as the fate of his wife is determined. The family's dysfunction becomes apparent as Matt learns his wife will surely die, it is suggested that he prepare family and friends to say goodbye. Taking this advice he brings his wayward daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodly), home from boarding school. When confronted by the reality of her mom's condition she responds by dropping Matt the bombshell: her mom, his wife, had been cheating. On a mission Matt and company decide to track down his wife's lover and confront him.

Now, I never watched E.R but I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that George Clooney offers the performance his career. His portrayal of Matt King was achingly real in both its profound dramatic and uplifting comedic notes. I had real empathy for the fine man his character was. It's also plain to see that Alexander Payne is a true actor's director. If you look at both 'Sideways' and 'The Descendants' he breaks down his protagonists to the raw skin and bones of their reality, only building them back together when they are ready. This is only achieved by offering his leads the necessary freedoms to reach the character's core without constraints of time and budget, a rare commodity in today's environment.