Movie Review: The Descendants

By Matthew Huntley

November 30, 2011

I wouldn't like to come across *this* crew in a dark alley.

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What’s special about a film like The Descendants is it doesn’t operate according to any pre-defined structure. In it, just as in real life, things happen, and they can be wild and unpredictable, but we know we have to face them because others are counting on us. For Matt, he not only has his daughters to think about, but also his entire extended family, and by the end of the film, he will have to make some hard decisions that affect them all, and even though it may not be readily apparent, he grows stronger for making them.

The film contains some very fine performances. George Clooney, who’s always been a reliable force on-screen, goes against his usual charming, tough-guy persona and shows a great deal of sensitivity and vulnerability. When he cries, looks worried or overwhelmed, he’s not going for a false affect. Payne brings these emotions out of him and they’re completely convincing. We sympathize with Matt on a genuine level.

Clooney is equally matched by Woodley, whose Alex character isn’t made out to be the usual, I-hate-the-world teenage daughter. She’s given more weight and dimension and I liked how she and Matt sort of team up to investigate Elizabeth’s affair. In a more conventional drama, Matt would leave Alex in the dark and she would storm off, but he utilizes her and treats her like a person, which allows them to grow closer.


The supporting actors are just as memorable, including Nick Krause as Alex’s dense and insensitive friend Sid, who looks and behaves like a dumb-as-rocks surfer dude but who eventually a reveals an inner pain that Matt respects and responds to. Robert Forster is brutally effective as Matt’s gruff and grief-stricken father-in-law, who grills Matt about his marriage and money. There comes a point when the screenplay gives Matt the chance to fight back, but it resists the easy urge and we understand why. And Judy Greer has a small but significant role as the wife of Elizabeth’s lover. She shares a moment with Matt where her eyes say more than words ever could.

Films like The Descendants are the kind we think are very good when we see them and then grow on us over time. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, but it is a special film because it moves us in a way few films do. Although elegantly shot around the islands of Hawaii, it doesn’t let the locations overshadow the story, reminding us even the most paradisiacal places have real people in them trying to find answers. The film suggests it’s only when we go with our hearts and learn to forgive ourselves (and others) that paradise becomes something we feel instead of somewhere we go.

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