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

Written by James Zborowski.

Photo from the article Alexander Payne’s last feature film before The Descendants was Sideways, which won the 2005 Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. Up until that point, Payne had been averaging around one feature every three years: his debut Citizen Ruth in 1996, Election in 1999, About Schmidt in 2002 and Sideways in 2004. These four films, and especially the first three, are manifestly the work of the same (highly gifted) writer-director.

From Citizen Ruth to Sideways, Payne ‘places’ his characters - even the ones with whom we are invited to sympathise - with precision and without much mercy. He is the master of the telling detail. In Sideways we do not only see Miles, in one of his less honourable moments, ask a store clerk for a copy of ‘Barely Legal’; in a master stroke of economy, we learn that he is a habitual reader when he states that he does not want the copy that the clerk has reached for, but the newer issue. In Citizen Ruth the pro-life Christians who have ‘rescued’ the destitute - and pregnant - Ruth Stoops from her prison cell invite Ruth into their home, but quickly teach her the rules of the house: ‘We don’t usually sit in those chairs’, she is told of the furniture in the hallway. In both Election and About Schmidt characters will, during their voiceovers, condemn themselves out of their own mouths, revealing the gulf of understanding that lies between them and the author figure who has written those words for them.

The give-away act; the give-away décor, outfit, or haircut; the authorial irony contained within voiceovers: all of these features are absent from The Descendants. Payne’s latest film lacks the distinctiveness of his output to date - so much so that I would not have been able to identify the film as Payne’s if I had not already known it was his. In terms of distinction, though, The Descendants might exceed Payne’s earlier efforts.

Putting it schematically, to get us started, we might say that whereas Payne’s earlier films cultivate distance in their viewer, The Descendants encourages closeness (though not closeness entirely without judgment, as we shall see below). Staying schematic for just a moment longer: I was struck in The Descendants by the frequency of the frontal travelling shot as a framing choice. Often, when Clooney is moving from one place to another, the camera keeps him in a medium close up and travels with him. Of course, such a device cannot force the viewer to ‘identify’ with Matt, and still less can a framing choice alone magically grant us access to a character’s thoughts. What it can do, though, is imply an attitude towards a character and her or (in this case) his concerns - one that is very different from the fun-poking detachment of Payne 96-04. And it can encourage the viewer to share that attitude, and to focus on an attempt to empathise with the character and her or his experiences.

The shift of perspective required by Payne’s shift in approach might lead to a feeling of loss or disappointment in the opening scenes of The Descendants for viewers familiar with the earlier work. I certainly felt disappointed when I heard Clooney, with his trademark slightly mannered delivery and pauses (intended to generate authority), make declarations which the film appeared to entirely endorse. It was also with initial disappointment that I saw that Payne had left behind the world where aspirations to a particular kind of taste outrun the wherewithal to attain it, and had moved across to the décor of the comfortably wealthy. Neither the voiceover nor the set design seemed to be telling me as much as I was expecting it to - it seemed to lack the precision and the exquisite tension of Payne’s earlier work. I would maintain that Clooney’s voiceover is not one of the movie’s better features. Thankfully it is an expository device which soon fades, never to return. The set design, however, rather than representing a lack, say of judgment, should, I think, be viewed as representing a principled withholding of such judgment.

We are at liberty in this Alternate Take to divulge the details and secrets that could only be alluded to in the short review. Following her boating accident, Matt’s wife Elizabeth is in a coma. This is more or less how the movie starts. We get a brief, but important, glimpse of Elizabeth before this though. The first image in the movie is a medium close-up of Elizabeth, sitting at the back of a boat, smiling, wordless. Fade to credits. This moment quietly sets a template for the movie’s overall method. We are shown an ostensibly simple, direct detail, which we are then encouraged to repeatedly revisit by what we learn subsequently.

Matt remains hopeful of Elizabeth’s recovery long enough for us to hear his pledge that he is ‘ready to be a real husband and a real father’. But then Matt is told by the doctor that Elizabeth will not recover consciousness, and reminded that her will stipulates that she cannot be kept alive artificially for very long. When Matt goes to collect Alexandra from her boarding school, her exclamation ‘Fuck mom!’ is, given what we know, shocking. A focus on Alexandra’s delinquency and apparent sense of entitlement is sustained for just long enough for us to be led to believe that this is what the rest of the film may be about, when matters take a further turn. Alexandra tells her father that she saw her mother cheating on him, and that this is why she and her mother had not been on speaking terms for the past few months. Matt runs (in an undignified fashion that recalls Warren Schmidt - one of the few such moments in the movie) around to his neighbours’ house, and his suspicion that they knew of his wife’s affair prove to be well-founded.

The revelation of Elizabeth’s infidelity is the major turning point of the movie. It complicates Matt’s and Alexandra’s grief, and further complicates the audience’s sympathies. The quest to find and confront the man in question is one of the three narrative threads that runs through the movie. The other two are the countdown to Elizabeth’s life support being switched off, and Matt’s decision about what to do with the large amount of land held in trust by him and his relatives. (It is further testament to the film’s subtle but meticulous organisation that these three strands are interwoven without stress, insistence or contrivance.)

This revelation is, however, only the most prominent instance of the movie’s thoroughgoing dramatisation of what is perhaps a commonplace idea: there is always more to find out about a person and a situation. Knowledge is always provisional, and judgments should follow suit. In The Descendants this is not an insight that is put into the mouth of a character. It is something we are made to experience, and to feel, through the cumulative effect of the movie’s presentation and patterning. Aesthetically, intellectually, and ethically, this is a good position to be placed in by an artwork.

This Alternate Take was published on February 24, 2012.

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