Alexander Payne’s newest release, titled The Descendants, is a fantastically made film about the loss of a family member, and coping with reality in a strained family. Payne writes and directs with a refreshing vision of realism, and his story intriguingly contrasts the paradise setting of Hawaii with the complications of the character’s lives. The deep understanding of human emotion showed in this film sets it above others live it. George Clooney stars as the father of two difficult girls, and the husband to a woman who at the start of the film is put on life support following an accident. Clooney plays the role with the brains enough to understand the emotional depth of the character, and the supporting actors all give strong performances, but The Descendants doesn’t quite have what it takes to win come the Oscars.
Matt King (George Clooney) is a descendent of some of the first white-owned land in Hawaii, and as a lawyer is currently leading his group of cousins in the sale of their family owned property. After a boating accident, Matt’s wife is put on life support. When informed that his wife isn’t going to survive without life support, they open her will and find out that she wanted to be pulled off support if the time ever came. Their marriage was shaky over the last several months, but Matt tries as best as he can to rally his two disobedient daughters and to tell all of his wife’s closest friends and family so that they have a chance to say goodbye.
Further complications arise when the King’s eldest daughter Alexandra tells her father the reason behind her fights with her mother. Matt’s wife Elizabeth has been cheating on him for months, and he seems to be one of the few who is oblivious to this. Matt then decides to track down her husband’s lover, not just to tell him he has ruined a marriage, but to allow him a chance to say goodbye to Elizabeth before she dies. The plot thickens further when Matt, seemingly ready to forgive and forget, uncovers that the man who has been sleeping with his wife is part of the top potential clients for buying his family property. Not wishing to inform everyone that his wife was cheating, Matt also doesn’t want to give profits to the man who she was cheating with.
Alexander Payne handles the themes of family, love, marriage and redemption effectively in this film. He displays an understanding of human emotion that many writers lack, and he selected actors who also understand their purpose in the film. Through contrasting the jubilant setting and melancholic tone, Payne tells a simplistic story with both realism and intrigue. While not the best film of the year, The Descendants is certainly a relatable and enjoyable film.