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Movie Review: The Descendants
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The Descendants movie posterThe Descendants
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Barbara L. Souther and Robert Forster
Release Date: November 16, 2011

Director Alexander Payne‘s films aren’t fashioned with any hidden aims or methods. Slowly revealing to audiences instances that would provide instant revelation isn’t his main concern. He understands the importance of a matter and what the most essential points are to it. In his newest feature, The Descendants, which Payne and screenwriter Nat Faxon adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 novel, the most essential point is capturing the many facets of humanity. Payne admires human behavior and the incredible yet emotionally painstaking adventures it provides for individuals to travel.

Human senses are a cornerstone of Payne’s films. Similar to legendary Hollywood directors like Billy Wilder or William Wyler, Payne is receptive to every sense and in turn discovers deeper truths about humanity. The amount of observation of human behavior is profound in The Descendants, achieving in the proves a slice of reality, a slice of truth so vivid that viewers constantly have to remind themselves that we aren’t inhabitants of Payne’s created atmosphere.

Impulsively he thrusts us into his world where the cards are already on the table. All that we need to know is exposed to us rather quickly: A man’s wife is dying and he finds out that she has been cheating on him. You may say, “what’s the pay-off of watching the film, then?” Well, the journey from point A to point B matters, traversing the many sensations that his characters in his films traverse. The characters in Payne’s Sideways, About Schmidt, and Citizen Ruth are all searching for something that would alleviate the raging agitation incessantly plaguing them. All of the main characters have an earnest desire to discern a remedy that would diminish the disorder running amuck in their lives. But is their attempt worthwhile?

In The Descendants disorder settles even in the most lavish of places. The orderly and healthful world of Hawaii collapses. No longer is it a tropical resort for the wealthy and complacent. Maybe sometime ago it was just that for Matt King (George Clooney) and his family consisting of his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastle) and his two daughters, Alexandra (a dynamite Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). Matt is the sole trustee of a family trust that he inherited from one of Hawaii’s first white land-owning families dating back to the 1860s. He now has the power to decide whether or not to sell 25,000 acres of pristine Hawaiian land. It would seem that the Kings are living large and well.

But that is not the case. On top of his extended family constantly bickering in his ear to sell the land so they would become instant millionaires (mostly by one of his cousins played by Beau Bridges), Matt is awakened to a bleak reality. His wife is in the hospital in a coma due to a boating accident. Her father (Robert Forster), who is currently coping with his wife’s (Barbara L. Southern) dementia, insists that it was Matt’s own fault that she got in the accident. She is on the verge of death and Matt is ready to pull the plug on her, as she had already stated in her will. It is necessary for him to let the family, the descendants and all, know that she will die.

The established allure of Hawaii quickly dissipates for Matt and soon it will do the same for his children. Alexandra is a teenager ripe for easily succumbing to depression. Her father takes her out of boarding school to be told that her mother is going to die. Once at home she demands she has her friend Sid (Nick Krause), who possesses more emotion than his idiotic demeanor would lead us to believe, by her side for comfort. She then informs her father “mom has been cheating on you.” This comes as a revelation to him and immediately sets out to find who the man is that his wife has been seeing, who happens to be a real estate agent (Matthew Lillard) with a wife (Judy Greer) and children of his own.

From real estate squabble, to teenage angst, to coping with an imminent death and to unfaithful romances, The Descendants accomplishes many difficult and different feelings in precise detail and with unhesitating authority. By evoking many feelings, the film inevitably finds its way approaching sentimentality. Once arriving at it Payne turns it into something to behold, something poetically graceful. It is difficult to portray solitude, depression and even melodrama in a lighthearted, comedic way. But that is Payne’s forte.

This is a wonderfully crafted story, so tidy that it is nearly impossible to discern a flaw in it. It undoubtedly deplores any unnecessary excavations into humanity. Instead of overachieving by peering into the souls of all who are involved, Payne picks one man to surgically dissect and that is Mr. Clooney’s character.

Matt has many moments of intense introspection, and Clooney fully allows us to experience what his character is burdened with. Clooney keeps at a distance cracking under pressure, but wears well a countenance that is emotionally beaten but still maintaining a glimmer of hope in his gaze. The ability to conceal outwardly angst is a master-class in acting and Clooney does that (save for a scene or two that requires him to explode), harboring intense feelings that dwell within his character rather than explicitly conveying what he is feeling. It is an immersive experience and as viewers we are impelled to join in the lives of these characters and feel extremely comfortable in them despite the vast amounts of turmoil and trepidation. People just try to keep their head above water.

Rating: 5 out of 5

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