The main thing that attracted me to the Alexander Payne directed film The Descendants (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) was the cinematography. Indeed, the cinematography in the this film is fantastic: from sandy beaches to high mountains, we are shown Hawaii (the film’s setting) in all its natural brilliance. However, when the film ended, the thing I thought of most was the one thing I cared least about: George Clooney. In The Descendants, Clooney plays Matt King, a real estate lawyer/land baron whose wife is in a coma after suffering a boating accident. During this time, he is only days a way from making his biggest real estate deal — one that involves land that he has been in-trusted with. He also has to deal with his youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and oldest daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley).
This is the only film I know (in recent memory) that, during the course of the film, I eventually liked characters that I initially disliked. That’s because the characters happen to be complex and realistic; so realistic, in fact, I truly believed them – every single one. Every actor and actress in this film is on top of their game, no matter how small the role. Highlights include Robert Forster as King’s wife’s father, Beau Bridges as Cousin Hugh (one of the many cousins King has in this film), Matthew Lillard as Brian Speer, and Judy Greer as Speer’s wife Julie. One character that impressed me was Sid, played by Nick Krause; initially, his character came off as stupid, but as the film went on, we got to know him a bit more and see who he really is (or, at least who he claims himself to really be). It’s a terrific example of one of the things this film did phenomenally. In addition to that, I was able to understand the characters, understand why they felt a certain way, why they acted a certain way, and why I would initially dismiss of them. All of them have layers, all of them are more then what they initially seem, and whether or not they themselves reveal the layers, we as an audience are able to see them at some point or another.
The other big highlight of this film is, of course, the scenery. The film shows off Hawaii in a non-exploitative fashion, showing us what’s really there and not trying to pretty it up (which in turn, makes it all the more beautiful). We see the city how it is (just a city) and we see the world as it truly is (without color saturation). The thing shown the most (in terms of scenery) are mountains, fields, and beaches. The mountains and beaches are all fantastic, but the fields (like the land in-trusted to the King family) is breathtaking. The anamorphic widescreen used in the film really allows the camera to do plenty of close-ups, as well as wide shots of Hawaii’s vast geography. On a simple note, seeing people dress like (as King would say it) “bums” (Hawaiian shirts and shorts) is enjoyable, given they all live on a tropical island and it would be expected, but it ends up looking more natural and realistic than one might expect. And that’s probably the film’s biggest accomplishment: making realistic characters. Characters I can believe in, that I care about. It’s always a vast triumph to make your audience truly and honestly care for the characters they see on the screen.
Which brings me to what is arguably the film’s most important point and its general selling point: Clooney. I like George Clooney a lot, but I didn’t see The Descendants because he was in it. Truth be told, I didn’t care he was in it. But then I saw his performance. What I saw wasn’t George Clooney: what I saw was Matt King, a man who is having the hardest time of his life trying to cope with all that is happening around him. Never would I have thought that Clooney could completely convince me that he could act this good. What makes it is what makes every other character: naturalism. King is a completely human and understandable character, who’s actions and motivations are realistic and honest. He also sees everything that happens: the whole movie takes place from his perspective, essentially. Because of this, we are able to see the different sides of every character, the different emotions King experiences (laughter not being one of them), and understand him better than anyone else. By the film’s end, King is a real person, a person I know in real life, a person I know and love. King reminded me of my father, and that never happens while I watch a film. While he isn’t exactly like my father, King shares realistic qualities that I can relate to real people. But it isn’t just King: every character (or at least every main character) in this film reminds me of someone in real life – it doesn’t matter if I can name the person or not, the point is these characters are human and real because I’ve seen their qualities in other people before. I always see these qualities because these qualities are not fictional; nothing the characters do in this film are things that only happen “in the movies.”
Ultimately, what brings The Descendants home is it’s message of loyalty. King has many responsibilities, and he stays loyal to each and everyone (or at least he tries). It’s the loyalty and honor that make King who he is; it’s what makes his daughter’s respect him; it’s what we as an audience admire most. Every character in this film has something to say that’s important, and every character is an important piece to the overall picture. The Descendants tells a story that can resonate with all of us and it makes us care without even trying. It has moments of pain and moments of laughter – but there are two adjectives that describe this movie best. The first adjective is melancholic, for it is the one thing this movie wallows in throughout. The second adjective is beautiful, for it is the main thing this movie proves it self to be.