Emotional Indifference in ‘The Descendants’

There’s much more than meets the eye in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants.

Payne captures just about every emotion in his layered family drama. Happiness, sadness, indifference, resentment, pain, sorrow, joy – you name it, it exists here. And Payne does a wonderful job – both in his script he co-wrote with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash and in his visual framing of Matt King’s dysfunctional family.

King, played by George Clooney, has lost touch with his daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). And his relationship with his wife, whose life hangs in the balance after a boating accident, was in turmoil before he found out she hadn’t been the most faithful woman before landing in a hospital bed.

The Descendants strengths come from Payne’s particularly great job of capturing the grief of all characters. With age differing between the father and two daughters, they each dealt with tragedy in their very own way. And Payne’s framing of this grief is both darkly funny in King’s lashing out at his wife while she lies in a coma and sobering in the troubling way the daughters deal with it.

The two scenes specifically that blew me away were the ones where the daughters dealt with tragedy. They came at different parts of the film, blew me away and left me with an emotional imprint. Older daughter Alexandra is captured swimming underwater in their backyard pool after her father delivers the news about her mom’s impending death, a beautiful and moving scene where she screams so loud but you can’t hear a thing. Conversely, Payne forgoes the use of words in the explanation to the younger daughter Scottie. We don’t need to hear what’s being said, we feel the grief from the young girls’ stricken face.

But what makes The Descendants anything but familiar are the subplots that exist inside the head of King. After finding out he was being cheated on, he’s indifferent with his feelings towards his dying wife. He wasn’t naive enough to believe their marriage was actually working, and there’s part of him that still cares, but he can’t help but resent her for the pain she’s caused him. To love for so long and but feel pain at the first hint of treachery is nothing but confusing. And with no one there to communicate with, there’s nothing left but to engage a battle in his own mind.

With a lot going on in the King family, Payne makes sure not to jump too far from point to point. Whizzing around too quickly could have been poison for this smartly paced film. Instead, Payne wraps each bullet point of drama into one. All relating in some way, King has battles with family members, friends and his daughters about business, life and more. I thought what Payne did was very sustained and unique. There’s a lot of drama here and none of it is forced.

The Descendants is also acted beautifully. While at first I felt Clooney was playing Clooney again, which he does rather well, I bought into his performance more as the film moved along. There’s slightly more range to his work here. While I’m not sure it was best actor award worthy, it’s certainly a performance that empowers Payne’s screenplay that much more. There’s something about his performances that are indescribable, perhaps because of how commonplace and typical they seem. But somehow, someway, they leave you impressed.

But the true star of the film was Shailene Woodley. Only know for her role on some teenage show I don’t have the time to look into, Woodley dominates as the anchor to Clooney’s rock solid performance. Can you imagine the pressure to live up to expectations set by Clooney and Payne? I couldn’t. Somehow Woodley did, which to me is only a sign of better things to come from this young actress. Her performance is both angry and gentle, with a full range of emotion in between.

I’ve always said that the scariest films are the most realistic ones. A family drama like The Descendants scares the wits out of me more than any horror film could ever dream of doing. This is dread, failure, paranoia and emotional confusion at its best. With a boiling sense of misery behind seldom faces of joy, this is one of the year’s best American films. Payne doesn’t make many films, but when he does, he apparently knocks them out of the park.

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