The Descendants is George Clooney’s movie. He is in every scene and we regularly return to a close-up of his blank stare. The expression is understandable, because Matt King – the character that Clooney portrays here – is a man who has quite a lot to digest. His wife is in a coma after a speed-boating accident, his cousins expect him to sign away a piece of land that has been in his family for generations and he suddenly has to be a father to his two daughters, something he has been able to avoid for years. “The Descendants tells the story of a painful farewell, but it always calls to mind – with a quick look at the supporting characters – that such stories happen every day, to all of us” (Susan Vahabzadeh, Süddeutsche Zeitung).
The fact that Clooney has been able to fend off parenthood in real life makes him all the more believable in this role of a reluctant father. What’s more, he is able to subtly make his ‘Clooney-ness’ disappear into the background and thereby bring Matt King to life. “In some scenes, director Alexander Payne, keen observer of masculinity, manages to make us believe in the ordinariness of George Clooney” (Thomas Sotinel, Le Monde). It’s the funny walk, the way his pants are pulled up just a bit too high, but most of all: that empty gaze of someone who is completely shell-shocked.
Payne tells the story of Matt King (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) with a masterful mix of tragedy and lightness, which “makes the movie as fresh as it is exceptional” (Javier Ocaña, El País). He is able to defuse even the most emotional confrontations with a little joke that has just the right tone. And even the most dramatic developments are presented with a casual matter-of-factness. “The Descendants only rarely comes close to the tragic dimension contained in the subject matter” (Thomas Sotinel, Le Monde). It makes for a story that stays grounded in reality and that remains bearable for the audience.
The film’s title points at the past as well as the future. On the one hand, Matt has to come to terms with his place in the family lineage of missionaries and Hawaiian royalty. On the other, there is his role as caretaker of future generations, personified by his daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). The impressive landscape of Hawaii serves as the frame that stresses this timeline. But Payne is not the type to shower us with visual drama. Not even at a location that is practically begging for it. He allows cinematographer Phedon Papamichael just one crane shot, to underline the question of youngest daughter Scottie: why don’t I have an equal right to this pristine landscape of vast forests and deserted beaches?
The material of The Descendants could have led to “various types of stories, including one that borders on soap opera” (Javier Ocaña, El País). A lesser director would have been tempted to go all out with the violins and start milking our tears. But with characters that are put on the screen so sharply and intensely, a screenplay that is so powerful and a landscape that speaks for itself, what suffices here is the soft strumming of a ukulele.