The Descendants (2011) – A Strangely Uplifting Deathbed Family Drama…

The Descendants

The plot summary of The Descendants makes it sound about as much fun as watching a club-footed farmer drown some kittens – a man prepares for the imminent death of his wife while trying to track down the man she was having an affair with. Without the marquee name of George Clooney attached, viewers might be forgiven for thinking the film is a disease-of-the-week movie that somehow found its way onto the big screen.

Luckily, the film is fronted by one of Clooney’s finest performances as the harrowed husband, fully deserving of his Oscar Nomination, and as with his more recent Nebraska, director and co-writer Alexander Payne shows his keen eye and ear for the nuances of family life.

Set in Hawaii, Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael also make the Aloha State a real character in the film, much like the landscape in Nebraska, but go beyond the usual cliches of hula skirts and mai tais, Shot is luscious, almost autumnal shades, The Descendants gives a glimpse of Hawaii as a real place, rather than just a holiday destination, which is critical to the film’s subplot.

Based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel of the same name, Clooney’s Matt King ought to be detestable – good-looking, wealthy, complacent, living in a dream house with a beautiful wife, a wide circle of friends and with enough dosh to send his kids to an expensive boarding school. His comfortable life is also about to get much more comfortable, with the upcoming sale of 25,000 acres of gorgeous Kauai seafront. The land belongs to a family trust, of which King is the sole trustee, and all the family needs to do is decide who to flog it to.

King’s life is soon turned upside down when his wife suffers a critical head injury in a water sports accident, and the doctors advise she isn’t going to wake up. Now Matt has to juggle his family’s expectations regarding the land deal while taking care of his two daughters, the younger emotionally troubled by her mum’s condition, and the elder hateful towards her mother because of her infidelity.

Rich people rarely make sympathetic characters in movies – no matter how bad their circumstances, there always seems to be a certain sense of schadenfreude involved, as if they somehow brought their misfortune on themselves by being so wealthy in the first place. That’s why I think George Clooney is an ace casting choice for the lead role here – I don’t mind him being far more rich, handsome, successful and charismatic than me because he’s just so damn good at it.

However, Clooney makes King a sympathetic character because he brings such understated bravery to the role – here is a man whose life was easy, now he not only faces dealing with the loss of his wife, but also with the fact she made him a cuckold.

It isn’t the same kind of bravery as storming a machine gun nest single-handed, or listening to the complete works of Justin Bieber without the benefit of morphine or an unlimited supply of booze. It is the type of quiet bravery we all need to draw upon at some point – the bravery to be dignified and hold yourself together, when the easiest thing to do would be to fall apart; the bravery to smile and do the right thing by your family when you’re hurting.


Clooney also imbues King with a sadness you suspect may well have been there before his wife’s accident and discovery of her affair. King is distant from his daughters and seems like a stranger in his own family – while he is trying to be a good father is such testing times, there doesn’t seem to be anyone around for Matt. It is also implied on several occasions that his wife was having an affair because he wasn’t doing the business in the sack. King carries in all with weary grace, although anxiety, frustration and grief flicker behind Clooney’s matinee idol mask.

The sense of isolation runs throughout King’s family – while they are Hawaiian natives and the descendants of the title, they still live like expats. White, wealthy and disconnected from the true indiginous people, living in upscale communities with other white, wealthy friends and acquaintances.

As an expat myself, I recognise this sense of dislocation from the people around me – I live in a bubble, and the tribulations of the country I chose as my new home simply don’t affect me, because I’m comparatively well off compared to many of those around me and my social network includes only others like myself plus the professional natives who also populate my expat world.

Of the supporting cast, Shailene Woodley is terrific as King’s older daughter Alex – initially bratty and resentful towards her father, it becomes clear that her bitterness stems from a contradictory protectfulness towards him.  Robert Forster also gets a choice role as Elizabeth’s scornful father, a sad man who still sees his little girl as a princess who can do no wrong, and is prone to punching people he doesn’t like.

Matthew Lillard pops up as Elizabeth’s lover, and is remarkably restrained – is it really twenty years since he played the bug-eyed psycho in Scream?

While death is an ever-present shadow in The Descendants, the film is never depressing. Alexander Payne is sensitive to the often fraught relationships of his characters, without ever turning them into dysfunctional family stereotypes, and allows his audience to celebrate his character’s small victories. He makes an astute choice showing Matt’s wife only briefly conscious at the beginning, because if she was more of a character, the inevitable deathbed scenes would have played more obviously on the emotions.

This is a wise choice, because The Descendants is not about a woman dying; it is about a family surviving, and in that respect it is a beautifully grown up and uplifting film.


About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 04/04/2014, in Comedy, Drama, Entertainment, Film, Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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