The Descendants is a film in which numerous difficult, draining emotions are explored. Based on a novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, it builds its story very carefully, adding layer upon layer of nuance. At its core, the film is about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. But it’s also about infidelity, parenting, and managing one’s legacy. That last element is where the title comes from, as Matt King (George Clooney) wields all the power as trustee of 25,000 acres of pristine Hawaiian land. He, along with most of his many extended family members, is planning to sign away the rights, handed down by their ancestors, to developers. The family stands to make millions from the deal.
But Matt has other more pressing concerns. At the outset of the film, we learn that his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) is in a coma as a result of a boating accident. The situation is dire. In fact, it’s hopeless. This leads Matt to retrieve his teenage daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), from her boarding school. His 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) lives with him already, but Alex was sent away after she developed some substance and behavioral problems. Matt and his two daughters need to begin preparing for the inevitable. Despite the heaviness of the situation, which is treated with realistic tenderness, director and co-screenwriter Alexander Payne keeps the tone impressively light.
If Matt didn’t already have enough on his plate, Alex drops a monster bombshell on him that sets the film’s plot in motion. This arguably brings us to mild spoiler territory. This plot element was utilized heavily in the film’s promotional campaign, but it somehow flew under my radar prior to seeing it. I think it was more effective not knowing this information beforehand. So if you don’t know much about the movie already, proceed with caution. It turns out that up until her boating accident, Matt’s wife was having an affair that had become pretty serious. Although Alex knew about it, Matt was oblivious. It’s a unique way to deal with the issue of infidelity, as Matt has to tread very delicately since he doesn’t want to disrespect his dying wife. Nor does he want to vilify her in the minds of his children, which is already how Alex has come to view her. But he finds himself driven to meet the man who captured his wife’s heart.
To divulge any more about The Descendants would really be unfair. The film is such a low-key slice of life, its little twists and moments of awkward confrontation should be seen rather than explained. The characters behave in sometimes unpredictable ways. While by no means a suspense film, this is what keeps the viewer eagerly awaiting the next development. The cast is extraordinary, led of course by Clooney, but with all the supporting actors making a distinct impression. Shailene Woodley, previously best known for her work on ABC Family’s The Secret of the American Teenager, is a revelation. She exhibited genuine acting chops during her time on that series, but now we see what she can do with truly nuanced writing. Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer, and Matthew Lillard all contribute first rate supporting roles.
The Descendants was shot the old fashioned way – on 35mm film. The Blu-ray transfer represents Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography exceptionally well. With all the lush Hawaiian scenery, this is a movie that really demands a flawless visual presentation. The colors, with the bright greens of the plant life and multi-colored flowers, are consistently bold. Fine detail is strong, with crow’s feet and other imperfections clearly visible on the older actors’ often wearied faces. I noticed no visual artifacts throughout the film. This is a rock solid transfer from start to finish.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is also free of any discernible problems. The Descendants was not designed to be the kind of film that’s used to demonstrate a powerful sound system. The subtlety of the movie itself is reflected in the dialogue-driven soundtrack. The gentle score is appropriately mixed so as not to draw attention to it. Beach scenes are where the most obvious atmospheric effects are included, such as waves and chatter from nearby people. The mix does everything it should do, never becoming busy for the sake of simply adding additional sound. The most important element, the dialogue, is resonant and always intelligible.
Quite a roster of supplemental features is included, with each featurette delivered in bite-sized chunks. One significant absence is a commentary track, so fans of the format may be disappointed. All told, there are over 90 minutes of video features, all presented in 1080p. They tend toward glad-handing superficiality, as evidenced by one of the titles, “Everybody Loves George.” We hear from cast and crew members about what an all-around awesome guy Clooney is. “Working with Alexander” is a love-fest for director Payne. Much meatier is “The Real Descendants,” which offers background on the actual family upon which the novel was based.
The longest piece is “Hawaiian Style,” which focuses on shooting on location in Hawaii. Though the participants’ awestruck tones are sometimes a bit over the top, a fair amount of information is delivered. “Casting” is a moderately interesting look at (you guessed it) the casting of the film. The best moment is when Rob Huebel (who plays a small role as a friend of Matt’s) plays back a saved voicemail from Alexander Payne, announcing he had been cast in the film. A casual chat between Alexander Payne and George Clooney is included, which touches on a wide range of topics.
The emotions explored throughout The Descendants ring very true. Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash certainly earned their Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay. This is a film in which all of the elements – from the writing, to the emotionally-charged acting, to Payne’s meticulous direction – combined for a genuinely moving experience.