The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Descendants

Reviewed by James Zborowski.

Director Alexander Payne
Length 115 min
Certificate 15 / R
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article Trailer.

If I have seen a film that you haven’t, and this film crops up in conversation, one question you might well ask me is ‘What’s it about?’ If someone were to ask me this of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (the director’s first for seven years), it would be hard for me to give an answer that was not misleading without going into quite a lot of detail and, in the process, revealing quite a lot of the plot.

Let’s begin with the one-sentence summary offered by IMDb: ‘A land baron tries to re-connect with his two daughters after his wife suffers a boating accident.’ If you asked me whether this is an accurate description, I would have to answer ‘Yes, but…’. Yes, Clooney’s character, Matt King, might be described as ‘a land baron’, but that makes him sound like a playboy or an aloof aristocrat, when in fact he’s a man who works long hours at his legal practice and lives in a pretty regular-sized family house. Yes, his wife’s boating accident does force greater parental responsibility onto him, and by his own admission he has in recent years not felt close to his daughters, but the IMDb phrasing makes The Descendants sound like more of a film about parenting than it feels. In fact, the film’s narrative is driven by a secret that Matt discovers and a decision that he has to make. His relationship with his daughters certainly alters across the course of the film, but that happens, to invoke John Lennon, whilst Matt is busy making other plans.

Of course, most films will be flattened and many will be falsified by a one-sentence summary. But this is particularly so in the case of The Descendants, because it is so particular. It feels important to note particulars, even when summarising, because they are at the heart of the film’s effect. It matters that, within a situation ripe for melodrama of the obvious sort, there are no perfect victims. It matters that Matt’s relationship with his wife and daughters has been, in the months and years preceding the accident, dysfunctional. It matters that when we first see Alexandra, the elder, seventeen year old daughter, she is drunk, and dismisses her father’s call that she show care and respect for her mother with a shockingly-worded reply. It matters that we have to wait a while before finding out that Alexandra has her reasons for the attitude she has expressed. Which is to say that the film demonstrates great care both in the poised scenario it offers, and the order in and pace at which it unfolds details of that scenario.

Making a film harder than usual to summarise probably also makes it harder than usual to sell. It helps, in such cases, if you have a star like George Clooney to offer to prospective audiences. Clooney is as good as ever in The Descendants, and, as he did in Up in the Air (2009), he plays particularly well opposite a young female character. Shailene Woodley, who plays Alexandra, may offer the finest acting in a film full of great performances (Robert Forster also deserves special mention in this regard).

Answering the question of what The Descendants is about is tricky; answering the question of whether it is ‘any good’ is not. It is a film that was worth the wait.

This review was published on February 06, 2012.

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