The Descendants – Review

The Descendants – Review

Review by FilmFellaDarren – 9/10

Hawaii: forever synonymous in Hollywood movies with a care-free, easy going existence created by proximity to picturesque landscapes defined by turquoise seas and golden sands. The superb Alexander Payne’s fourth film aims to subvert then dispel cinematic representations we all have of life in Hawaii, through this impressively organic and evocative screenplay about a Hawaiian lawyer and crucially, land baron, dealing with a tremendous amount of stress inducing turmoil in his life.

By using Hawaii as the basis for his screenplay, Payne has come up with the perfect metaphor for conveying the message of the film: that being, whether you dwell in a run-down urban slum or you are a seemingly privileged and successful person living next to sun-kissed landscapes, dysfunction defines humanity, problems are an inevitable part of the human existence.

As we are taken further into the troubled, overloaded life of George Clooney’s character, we realize that paradise is a distant dream for everyone, even those who reside in paradise.

As we live in a media dominated society that dangles in front of us -like a carrot on a stick – the illusion of a happier life through glossy images, this film is a perfect, timely and curiously comforting message to counterbalance the myths of a society that sells us the dream that we will all one day live blissful existences.

As he declares, with some contempt, at the start of The Descendants – through a clever use of voiceover that runs throughout the film – Matt King’s (Clooney) life is a million miles away from the Hawaii you know: his wife is gravely ill, left in a coma after a tragic boating accident; his two daughters appear to be out-of-control and the distance between him and them means he isn’t in a position to fix their problems. To compound his problems, he is engaged in a difficult quandary as to whether he should sell his long deceased relatives’ land or keep it to assure there are no commercial developments to spoil the natural scenery. And there are more problems on the way to complicate an already tragically difficult situation. The film is an examination of how he copes under the strain; what exactly he is going to do becomes absolutely captivating.

Director Alexander Payne wrote the characters in The Descendants adapting them from a novel by female writer Kuai Hart Hemmings. The characters are quintessentially Alexander Payne’s style and he has the chief writing acknowledgement on the credits.

Alexander Payne writes such interesting realistic drama; he makes his characters admirably natural and three-dimensional.  He is one of the best in the business at taking someone from their reality and projecting them into the lives of others; in a Payne film we see people we will never meet, or know, who are probably entirely fictional – and experience a reality different, but in many ways related to our own; for the duration of a Payne film we are compelled to care for his characters like they were our own flesh and blood, experiencing their situation and pondering their issues as if they were personal to us.  That’s what Payne does, he personalizes characters – he is clearly a director with a tremendous sense of empathy. If you are a person with a strong sense of empathy, it’s impossible not to be engaged and moved by The Descendants as well as Payne’s other films.  About Schmidt and Sideways both have characters that affected; George’s Clooney’s character is another nuanced figure who feels emotively real.

The combination of Payne and Clooney was always a promising prospect. He is very much an actor’s director and Clooney has proven that there is tremendous depth behind his (reluctant) star appearance. One of the joys of The Descendants is watching the actor peel away the cool, calm collected composure that often defines him on-screen, to play an every-day guy struggling to hold together in impossibly trying circumstances, battling not to succumb to the justifiable anger and frustration that bubbles underneath his dignified exterior. Clooney is more vulnerable and stress burdened in this than we’ve seen him before; he is also more down-to-earth and human. He captures the mind-set of a character who is trying to detach himself from the tumultuous array of emotions under the surface, and do the right, as well as honourable, thing for everyone.  Clooney is mesmerizing – his performance makes it impossible not to walk a mile in the characters shoes. He makes his character a real person who matures admirably the more difficult his circumstances become. He is a caste-iron certainty to get a best actor Oscar to add to the award he won for his supporting turn in Syriana.

It’s good to reflect on the fact that Clooney’s character is in essence a land baron called Mr King. Think of a land baron and you have a certain image of ruthlessness. To think that Clooney’s performance brings such humanity to a land-baron is another testament to his performance. The reinvention of a land baron character is depicted so skilfully and sympathetically by Payne. The character is a head of a family trust who are trying to persuade him to sell one of the last remaining pieces of land entrusted to them by his ancestors .It’s obviously lucrative, but in a great, and deeply meaningful scene, you see Clooney’s character gazing at the beautiful surroundings, pondering the implications of selling out to profit on family heritage. Should he sell, or retain a link to his lineage and their descendants?

Given that Payne is a filmmaker clearly not even tempted to sell-out, there is no doubt in my mind what Payne would do. The scene is something of a metaphor for Payne’s filmmaking ethos: there’s beauty to be found by avoiding the lure of commerce and keeping things natural. Clooney’s character is not Payne so what he will do becomes an engaging and meaningful subplot.

Holding her own alongside Clooney is the young actress Haliene Woodley. She gives a wonderfully angst-ridden performance as King’s teenage daughter, who for reasons that become apparent, is dealing with a lot of anger. Mathew Lillard is a surprising casting choice; he pops up in a small role and does a lot with a small but significant appearance, even though his presence seems somewhat strange in a Payne film. There are a few under-developed peripheral characters – who perhaps are not as well written as the central figures – but it’s a small criticism when you have central characters who are this interesting. Paradise lost… characters found. Trouble in paradise has never been so compelling.

Payne matures even more as a filmmaker, displaying yet again that he is a director in-tune with the complex human psyche. He is clearly capable of rendering on-screen the depth of human emotion, whilst moulding characters that feel lived in, around dilemmas than feel realistic. There is less comedy in this than his last films as too much humour, even dark humour, would be jarring in such a serious drama, but rest assured, The Descendants is a deeply satisfying, compelling, quietly moving, dignified, captivating, intelligent soulful and meaningful character drama that certainly strikes a chord – whether you live in ‘paradise’ or not.

Review written by @filmfelladarren


About Filmfella Darren
Film critic, writer and long-time cinema appreciator. I write about cinema matters, because cinema matters. Like your clothes and your laptops, my articles were made in Taiwan.

9 Responses to The Descendants – Review

  1. Hillary says:

    Wow Darren. Terrific in depth review and your site is worth bookmarking. Very very sharp!

    I differ from the average film goer as I am not a big Clooney fan. It should be interesting to see him in a multi- dimensional role. I always thought he was a bit too internal, not to mention the fact that his films either need a better audio engineer or he needs eloocution lessons. Having said that, I will see the film for its other merits as you so eloquently deliver here.

    • FilmfellaDarren says:

      Thank you Hilary for your lovely comment. I did have my doubts about George Clooney as an actor when he was in his Batman and Robin phase, but I have to say that he has really emerged in the last decade as a fine actor. Personally I think he has an old school classic screen magnetism about him and he has an ability to convey a lot of depth on-screen. He has become very shrewd at choosing his roles too. He is also a mighty fine director both films he has made, Good night and good luck, and The ides of march were very astute. Perhaps if you the see the films he has directed you might change your mind about him. Let me know what you think of The Descendants. Thank you for bookmarking The Filmefellas. Below is an article I wrote about some of my favourite films of last year. I’m sure you’ll find some films on there you may like. I hope to correspond with you again on my articles.

  2. conordcfc says:

    I liked your review, and felt we picked up on similar issues. Good job! Take a look at my review when you have the time!

  3. tipsology says:

    Wow! Despite being aware of (and grateful for) the wonderful variety of people’s points of views, I still can’t help being surprised when the same exact movie gets such different responses as your interesting, well-written review…

    and my in-your-face, merciless one:

    Ciao from Barcelona 🙂

  4. filmfellaDarren says:

    Thanks for the love tipsology. It’s good to know The Filmfellas are being picked up in Spain. I am a big fan of Spanish cinema. There have been some great horror movies hailing from Spain over the last few years.

    • tipsology says:

      I guess you’re talking about “Pan’s Labyrinth”, for instance? What a gorgeous movie. I have to say I’m italian, though, I just moved to Spain because I love the sea and the weather 🙂

  5. filmfellaDarren says:

    Yes, Pan’s Labyrinth, but there are many more. REC; The Orphanage. The Devil’s Backbone; And last year there was Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I live in. The Skin I Live in featured very high in my top films of 2011 blog. Have you seen the film? Here’s what I thought of it.

    I’m not sure I know of any recent great Italian films. Do you have any recommendations? I am a big fan of Dario Argento though. What is it like living in Spain? I here the economy is tough over there at the moment.

  6. tipsology says:

    I must admit I haven’t been following Italian cinema so much since I left the country. There’s a terrifying documentary called “Videocracy” about the Italian situation (at least until Berlusconi was still in power). Now, that’s a REAL horror movie!!! If you can find it with subtitles, don’t miss it… you won’t believe your eyes… and it’d be great if you let me know what you thought about it 🙂

    Now, about Almodovar… Hmmm, we’ve got another point of disagreement there. We’re talking about one of my favourite directors, so I hope it’s clear that I just didn’t like this particular movie. Apart from not really being a real fan of the genre (“Pan’s Labyrinth” wasn’t even horror after all, was it? OK, “The Skin I Live In” isn’t either, but I think it gets closer to it), I didn’t like the way the script was shot. I found it quite ambitious in its premise, but a bit amateurish in its execution. Ironically it did remind me of Dario Argento’s stuff, which isn’t one of my favourite directors either 🙂 It would be a long debate, maybe some other time? 🙂

    But if you want to read about the movie that in my opinion deserved the BAFTA so much more than Almodovar’s, check out

    Reading your interesting list of the “25 Memorable Films for 2011”, I was glad to find “The Tree of Life” and “Melancholia”, two of my top contendants for movie of last year. I was a bit shocked about “Paul”, but still, as people say here in Spain, “para gustos colores” (something like “there’s a colour for each taste”)! By the way, I’ve proposed a peculiar interpretation of “Melancholia” over here ->

    Finally, living in Spain is not a fairy tale at the moment. Luckily I work with Italian companies, and even though the crisis is bad in Italy too, it’s not so bad as in Spain. In general the atmosphere is pretty bleak… I’m afraid it will be like this until summer, but when it comes, the usual hordes of tourists will arrive to enjoy Barcelona (which remains a really nice city, worth visiting without the slightest doubt) and the economy will take a breath. That would be another lengthy debate… And I realize I’ve written way too much already, so I’ll leave it for now!

    Enjoy and keep up your lovely work, ciao 🙂

  7. Andrew Moverley says:

    I watched this film on the way back from Hawaii. The beach where Clooney is hanging out waiting for Mathew Lillards character is a place called Hanalei bay, which is famous for surf and a well known song you may know called Puff the Magic Dragon. If you look at the cover poster for the Descendants the mountain in the back is actually part of Puff’s neck and back. It was a great film which shows a more real side to Hawaii. Believe it or not it rains a lot on the island of Kaui, the mountains in the centre of the island is one of the wettest places on earth.

    Did you spot the cameo role of one of the worlds most famous surfers? The blonde haired Character (the guy who crashed the boat) who has a conversation with Clooney and his little girl in the restaurant, is the surf legend Laird Hamilton – famous for the Riding Giants surf movie and is the guy on the poster in my room back home Darren.

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