Cinema is very good at capturing life. It’s death that it finds tricky. The problem isn’t that death is undramatic, but rather that it doesn’t conform to the tidy demands of narrative. In life, death is untidy and unpleasant, seldom accompanied with a noble sacrifice or a secret-revealing speech. There’s rarely a good time for death to come, so it rarely does. Instead, it arrives without warning, in the middle of the night, or on a bus, or in the frozen foods aisle of a supermarket; or maybe it drags out endlessly, over weeks, months or years, accumulating misery and tedium in equal measure.
Alexander Payne’s new film The Descendants is about such a thing: a death in slow motion, as inconvenient as it is devastating. What makes this more complicated is that it’s the death of someone the audience don’t know: the dying woman is only seen in the film’s opening shot, smiling gleefully moments before the boat crash that will put her in a coma. What follows in its wake is scene upon scene of her husband Matt King (George Clooney) visiting family members and friends to announce the death of someone who is a stranger to us.
By not having an emotional investment in Elizabeth, the film sidesteps what could be potentially maudlin and instead contemplates the idea of inheritance and legacy. The imminent death of his wife sharpens Matt’s mind, revealing to him a lifetime of missed opportunities and mistakes that it just might still be possible to make up for. Played with lumpy desperation by Clooney, Matt learns in the most painful way possible that there is a better person inside of him. Grumpy and awkward, Matt King is reminiscent of the protagonists of Payne’s other films, from Paul Giamatti in Sideways to Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt: completed flawed but wonderfully, heartbreakingly human.
The Descendants is buffered from predictability or cliché by its Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s sensitive screenplay, as well as a host of fine performances: in particular Shailene Woodley as Matt’s daughter Alex, taking the overly-common trope of a disapproving teenage daughter and turning it into something tender, angry and real. Even moreso, it is the unusual setting of Hawaii that makes the film seem fresh. The story is a familiar one, but the unhurried, relaxed nature of Hawaiian life (where powerful people “look like bums and stuntmen”) makes it feel different.
This foreignness doesn’t dilute the emotion: Matt explains in his opening voiceover that living in a paradise doesn’t protect you from the pain that life brings. The film and its protagonist come to the bittersweet conclusion that perhaps it’s okay that so much of life is rubbish and painful: what’s important is learning to endure, so that we can protect and pass on what was passed on to us. It’s a realisation that might seem trite in other films, but here is one that is well-earned.