Film review: The Descendants (Director: Alexander Payne)
By Sascha Krieger
Matthew King is a lucky man. Being a native of Hawaii, he is living in paradise, he is the inheritor of one of the last untouched bays on Oahu and a direct descendant of Hawaii’s last great king, he has a successful law practice, a beautiful wife and two wonderful daughters. But when we hear him at the start of the film, we do not hear a happy man. This is no paradise, he says, and by the way, he hasn’t been on a surfboard in year. It’s his wife who is the daring, life-loving part of the marriage – and it is she who falls into a coma after a boating accident. When the film begins, Matt’s world is shattered and it will fall into even more pieces before he can try to pick up the shattered parts and move on. If there is such a thing.
Following the surprise success of Sideways, Alexander Payne has taken on a successful novel and hired George Clooney as Matt. It has paid off: Clooney’s bewildered face, helpless and searching and, after discovering his wife’s secret, encased in an almost childlike anger, is often in close-up and carries the film. It is his eyes through which we see the world and discover the story and it is his state which dominates the films rhythm. When he is calm, the camera stays still, when he is in turmoil, it moves fast. This fascinating interaction between Clooney and the cinematography allows the viewer to experience the journey this character and his equally searching daughters are on. It is a journey of dead ends, of misunderstandings and pain, and ultimately, love. No false sentimentality here, just life, laconic, brutal, beautiful.
Nobody exemplifies this journey more than Sid (Nick Krause). A stupidly grinning, annoyingly frank and simply obnoxiously happy teenage friend of Matt’s oldest daughter, his presence on the journey is never fully explained. He is just there, suddenly, and remains. That’s all there is to it and maybe that’s life, too. Something happens, you don’t know why and how but it’s there. Sid is a sort of clown, infusing happiness where there should be none and denying the rule of rationality. As his presence cannot be rationally explained, he is the agent not of reason but of acceptance, acceptance of that which happens, whether it’s good or bad, whether there seems to be a reason or not. What does is whether there is love and as long as this is so, all else can be overcome.
And no, this is no paradise – or maybe it is. This Hawaii is beautiful, sublime and at the same time pedestrian, even sad. Sky and sea are mostly blue – with some grey patches – nature is green but there is always a slight mist over the scenery, the colors are a little pale as if this world is there but not quite. Matt moves, at least at first, like a sleepwalker through this life which is suddenly his own but which he cannot recognize. The misty images, the pale colors reflect this near-dreamlike state, this in-between status, this limbo he is in, a reflection of the real limbo of his wife.
In a way, The Descendants is a growing-up story – not so much for the girls, but for Matt himself as he leaves the imagined life behind, makes peace with the real life hidden behind the facade – and with his still beloved wife – and starts out into a new one, reconnecting with his children, rebuilding the family, he the backup, the surrogate parent. Cautiously, insecurely, clumsily but honestly. Just like Sideways, The Descendants is a quiet, unassuming, complex and moving although totally unsentimental gem, about the big things: life, death, pain, love. Nothing less.