THE DESCENDANTS. Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Robert Forster, and Patricia Hastie. Directed by Alexander Payne. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language). 115 min.
This excellent drama-comedy tells the story of a successful Hawaiian property lawyer, Matt King (George Clooney), whose business preoccupations have pushed him to keep his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), at a distance. She becomes the victim of a tragic boating accident, which puts her into a coma, from which we are told she can never recover. Matt is faced with respecting his wife's wishes that, if she is going to die, she wants her life support to be turned off. He tells the older of his daughters, Alex (Shailene Woodley), but not her younger sister (Amara Miller), that he has given permission for their mother to die.
Alex, conflicted in her own feelings about her mother, informs him after he tells her, that her mother has been unfaithful to him. Distraught, Matt later learns that Elizabeth's affair
was with a real-estate agent, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), who is involved in a land deal with which Matt is associated. Not understanding what has happened, and anguished by his wife's infidelity, Matt sets out with Alex and her boyfriend to find Speer.
Despite his feelings, Matt gives Speer the opportunity to say goodbye to Elizabeth. The final scenes of the movie achingly show Matt and his two children, Speer's now-knowing wife, Julie (Judy Greer), and Elizabeth's father (Robert Forster) all saying goodbye, in ways that movingly depict their personal conflicts. Neglectful of his children before the accident, Matt knows he must reach out to them now, and learn to control his feelings about what has happened. He engages with his children, he learns to forgive, and he uses his own unhappiness to help others. In all these ways, the movie carries strong moral messages. Ultimately, the film is a powerful testimony to the force of hope.
For the film, Clooney received Best Actor Award from the National Board of Review, and is clearly headed for Oscar nomination. It confronts us intelligently with major moral issues and challenges, which include the ethics of withdrawing life-support, forgiveness for the transgressions of others, coping with infidelity, and confronting one's responsibility to be a proper parent. The film deals inadequately with the first, but it develops the others with considerable power and impact. The sharpness of its scripting is wonderful. The movie exposes the turbulent dynamics of a father-daughter relationship that has gone wrong. Matt's children act out, because he has not done a lot over time to earn their affection, or respect. The film shows the truth that hides in the lies behind what people say and do to each other, and presents complex family issues insightfully. The casting overall is near-perfect. Clooney, himself a bachelor, tackles his role as if he has been a parent for life, and Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are particularly impressive as his daughters.
Matt, as trustee, controls the proposed sale of land held in a family trust. The sale would result in a financial wind-fall for his greedy cousins, but he knows by doing that he would alienate the indigenous community by selling their past, and he has to make a moral choice. The choice subtly taps into the multi-layered meaning of the film's title, and it is an especially difficult one for him to make, because Speer will earn commission on the sale.
This is an intelligent movie about adult issues, and the film tackles them with understanding and compassion. The camera explores the dignity of people, and finds it, even for people we might otherwise dislike. Clooney shelves his normal easy-going charm, and rises to the challenge of his role superbly. His acting captures what it is about people that might push them to infidelity; we learn what that means for forgiveness; and we see how adversity can change people for the better in the future. These are tough issues, and the movie deals with them humanely, and uses wit to avoid sentimentality. Only occasionally, does the comic effect under-mine the drama. The film for the most part manages brilliantly to skirt the delicate edges between psychological darkness, human trauma, and comedy.
This is a movie that promises to be one of the stand-out films of the year.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Twentieth Century Fox.
Out January 12th 2012.