Alexander Payne started his career with Citizen Ruth, a film about a woman—a paint-huffing degenerate with a bun in the oven, caught in the cross hairs of the abortion debate and prone to take advantage or manipulate in any given situation, but a woman all the same. And though his following movie, Election, featured Reese Witherspoon as a high-strung reactionary veiled in do-gooder garb, that 1999 comedy and Payne’s subsequent films have firmly been about the world of man—middle-aged, socially troubled, existentially flummoxed man to be precise. As such, women still fill a crucial role in each of Payne’s film: Virginia Madsen’s angelic waitress and wine expert is a final rousing chance at maturity and happiness in Sideways, the death of a woman uncovers a lifetime of screw-ups in About Schmidt.
In the case of The Descendants, Payne’s fifth full-length feature in 16 years, and one that improbably succeeds in the unenviable task of constituting a worthy follow-up to Sideways, the presence of women and femininity is felt powerfully, perhaps stronger than it ever has in a Payne film. The story of Matt King (George Clooney), an affluent lawyer and land baron living in Hawaii, trying to find and confront his comatose wife’s lover is a premise encased in tremendous masculine fury, fear, and dissolution. But the script, which Payne wrote with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, anchors this endeavor to a lost man’s final grasps at connecting with his daughters, Scottie (Amara Miller), a palpably askew pre-teen, and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), a troubled teenager banished to a rehabilitation camp on a separate island.
Forgiveness for, among many other things, that more-or-less banishment and King’s lacking parenting skills, is a sizable dramatic issue in The Descendants, but make no mistake, this is a film chiefly about passing away. The film offers only a brief prologue, but it’s an essential close-up: King’s wife (Patricia Hastie) waterskiing off the coast, smiling and ecstatic, alive and radiating it. For the rest of the film, we will only see her in a hospital bed, attached to an innumerable amount of translucent plastic tubes. Informed that his wife will be taken off life support, Matt is quick to get Alexandra home and tell her, a confession that spurs Alexandra’s confession that she had witnessed and confronted her mother about her affair with Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), a local real-estate dealer.
The tone is oddly shaggy, laid back but not exactly breezy, though it’s not incapable of tremendous heartbreak. There’s a great moment when King accuses Alexandra, her friend Sid (Nick Krause), and their generation of not having any respect for authority, which elicits dumbfounded stares meant to convey a simple question: “What authority?” The love that Alexandra and her father have for one another has, for some time, been scabbed over, and it takes an admission of this lack of authority for King to be able to speak clearly with his daughter again. The brief search for Speer is more a bonding ritual than an act of attempted closure.
Speer, however, is also integral to a part of King’s legacy, as a huge part of King’s estate is being sold off for an enormous amount of money and part of the deal is being brokered by Speer, at the order of King’s numerous cousins, the most prominent of which is wonderfully played by Beau Bridges. It’s a familiar scenario given an interesting twist: Further ensuring his family’s fiscal legacy comes with the irksome caveat that Speer will also benefit, but reneging on the more or less agreed-upon land deal gives Scottie a chance to enjoy her family’s lush property, recuperating the King family’s public image and stick it to Speer, even after his wife (Judy Greer) cops to being aware of his infidelity.
The surprising effectiveness and dense emotional landscape of The Descendants comes from Payne’s ability to touch on so many relevant themes without feeling labored, and the director never strains to provide a pointed conclusion to his unique thoughts on family, wealth, parenthood, marriage, and, yes, death. The rich man chooses to do what is best for the community and, in tow, regains trust and hope in his children, but his redemption isn’t clean, nor is he a man reborn. The film’s best moment is King’s exhilarating run from his home to the home of a couple who knew about Speer before he did, which suggests an explosive madness in King, an unseen, wild desperation. But the film’s most surprising moment is when King kisses Speer’s wife on the lips, right after more or less exonerating Speer of his deeds. In Payne’s world, forgiveness is an intensely personal matter, one that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going out the back door quietly.
Fox's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer handles colors, especially greens and blues, remarkably well, which makes all the difference. The island's forestry looks absolutely stunning and the water is clear and sparkling. Clarity and texture are also fantastic, catching the details of the Hawaiian decors and clothing beautifully; Hawaiian architecture and Monsieur Bahama have rarely looked this good. The audio is also impressive. Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash 's superb dialogue is out front, while the tropical ambience, sound effects, and traditional songs are balanced exceptionally well in the back mix. This is a very good package for what is ostensibly a very modest film.
The deleted scenes are the big gimme here, and Payne introduces them warmly. Each scene is interesting and wouldn't have felt out of place in the film's extended narrative. The making-of featurettes, however, are largely throwaways, including ones on casting, George Clooney's persona, island life, and Payne. There are two particularly interesting featurettes dealing with the history of Hawaii, one of which features beautiful early footage of a traditional Hawaiian parade. A video conversation between Clooney and Payne is also a worthy watch, though I wished that the entire cast were able to discuss the work as an ensemble. Music videos, a theatrical trailer, and DVD and digital copies of the film are also included.
Alexander Payne’s lovely, resonant fifth film does the hula on a lonely island of imminent death and wasted life, and receives an excellent transfer from Fox, coupled with a mixed bag of extras.