Sometimes, just when you think you’ve got it all everything collapses around you. Sideways director Alexander Payne dives head first into this bittersweet subject matter with his melancholic new movie The Descendants. George Clooney plays Matt King, the last in a long line of beneficiaries due to inherit a large portion of scenic Hawaiian real estate and a father of two unruly daughters. He lives in a picturesque paradise, surrounded by postcard perfect beaches and tropical foliage but as he so eloquently explains in the film’s opening monologue, ‘Paradise can go fuck itself’.
You see Matt is in no position to relax. Whilst away on business his wife was involved in a severe boating accident sending her into a coma and leaving Matt to fend for himself. Now he’s forced to repair the rocky relationships he has with his daughters and deal with the very real possibility that his wife may not pull through. If that wasn’t enough, he soon discovers that his terminal partner may not have been 100% faithful. Matt couldn’t be more right. When the shit hits the fan, paradise can do one.
Payne’s latest work presents us with sand, sea and some heavy drama but unravels at its own relaxed pace. Its floaty ukulele soundtrack cushions the real villain of the piece: grief, which looms over everyone Matt comes into contact with. His money hungry cousins don’t make life any easier. Lead by seemingly toothless but secretly ruthless Cousin Ralph (a sarcastic Beau Bridges), they’re desperate for him to decide a financially suitable fate for their land. As a result, Matt finds himself unable to process his newfound allotment of grief.
Should his wife’s infidelity change his feelings towards her impending death? Should he tell his bitter father-in-law that his dying daughter was no angel? Is her mysterious lover allowed the chance to say goodbye? Heavy stuff, but this is precisely where The Descendants excels. Almost every character is gifted their own quiet moment of pure anguish and each performance cuts to the bone.
Crushingly transparent, these scenes flit from resentment to humour in the same sentence and boast raw turns from Clooney and vet actor Robert Forster as the grief ridden father to Matt’s wife. However it’s not all doom and gloom. Some warm humour from feisty newcomer Amara Miller as Matt’s impressionable youngest and simpleton Nick Krause as a beach bum with a heart of gold and a nickel head make the whole bereavement experience an enjoyable one. Like the grieving process, The Descendants takes its sweet time to play out, but you’ll be better for it.
Originally featured on ThePlayground.co.uk.