Newly minted Best Picture (Drama) at this year's Golden Globes, along with George Clooney being awarded the Best Actor (Drama) award, The Descendants is Alexander Payne's latest film since Sideways, based upon the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Dealing with the central character of Matt King (Clooney) as the trustee of his extended family's trust of thousands of acres of untouched land on the island of Kaua'i, Hawaii, Clooney puts in a commanding performance that deals with one man's plight on many fronts, from his children, his wife, his relatives and having to make tough decisions that will affect the lives of his kindred.
As with Payne's films, the challenges that stand in the protagonist's way are what make the film highly engaging, and Clooney drops his film star demeanour to play the everyday man who faces issues that aren't too far fetched, discovering that his now comatose wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has been cheating on him, and trying to reconnect with estranged daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) and 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) since he's a dad who's seldom at home and seen. And as if matters of the family cannot get anymore complicated, here comes the extended family of cousins and just about everyone related to the King real estate who have to decide, ultimately by Matt himself, how to best sell off their inherited land in order to maximize their profits, with a deadline to boot.
With the multiple narrative threads dealing at a microscopic emotional level - trying hard to come to terms with a cheating spouse where you know you've drawn the shortest possible end of the stick given the state of the other half, and having a teenage daughter who doesn't quite understand you, they provide that grounding to make it easy to identify with Matt King the man who's really quite down on his luck on family matters. The plot threads expand to his near obsession to want to discover with whom his wife has been cheating with, and to bear the brunt of an incessantly sarcastic father-in-law who doesn't take her daughter's comatose state all too kindly.
But it's not all doom, gloom and filled with negative emotions here, as the film does have its fair share of lighter moments courtesy of characters like Alexandra's insensitive loud mouthed friend Sid (Nick Krause) who comes along for the road trip of sorts, though almost always punctuated with that tinge of inevitable sadness in the air. Moments of poetic justice also makes you want to whoop for joy, although you tend to weigh in on these moments and make you think - would you want to maximize benefits for those in your family, or for selfish reasons choose not to remotely reward someone who had done you a great wrong. Such is the tussle and wrangle Matt has to deal with, and makes The Descendants one really topsy-turvy emotional ride, which on one hand one wants to appear magnanimous, while on the other having to suppress the urge to just punch out.
And Clooney deserves his award for making Matt King so believable, junking his glamourous self for something far more affable at first, before the problems start to pile, each with a deadline of its own, and wondering when he would crack under undue pressure, emotionally and physically. Sharing perfect daughter-father relationship chemistry with Clooney is Shailene Woodley who in my opinion is an up and coming young actress to look out for, showcasing a wide range of emotions here, and a scene which I thought brought out her best when her character got broken the news of her mom's condition.
Alexander Payne crafts a meaningful, dramatic film that questions whether we should let the truth be always told, or to allow whatever the version it is in to pass, and to seek to forgive others even when we're wronged. And he deftly handles once again a protagonist who is put in a dilemma with monumental tasks to tackle, although you know they'd somehow converge together toward the end given the web of relationships that exists. Primed to be a firm contender for Best Picture come Oscar season soon, I'm quite certain this is a winner in its own way and doesn't need a golden statue to reaffirm that. Highly recommended!