“Don't be fooled by appearances. In Hawaii, some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen.”
- Matt King
Here’s what I wrote about this film in my theatrical review:
“Matt King (George Clooney) is at a crossroads. Not only is the successful Hawaii businessman faced with a colossal choice involving a parcel of land held by his family for generations, his adventure seeking wife currently sits in the hospital in a coma from which she might never awaken. It’s up to him to guide his two young daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), through the emotionally complex coming days, but having been for the most part and hands-off parent he’s not entirely sure the best way to do it.
But things are about to get even more complicated. The main reason for Alexandra’s growing estrangement from both her parents was her discovery that good old loving mom was having an affair, something Matt hadn’t the first clue about. Now Matt is on the search for a mysterious real estate developer named Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), and for the life of him he’s not altogether sure whether or not he wants to punch the guy’s lights out or just let him now the woman whose bed he shared now lies perilously on the edge of death.
That brief synopsis does Andrew Payne’s miraculous miracle of a motion picture The Descendants little justice. The simple fact is that the man behind such wonderfully complex and energizing dramatic comedies such as Sideways and Election has set himself a new bar to leap over, his latest achievements easily one of the finest movies of the year and arguably the man’s greatest cinematic achievement yet. Few films have dealt with the concept of parental death as movingly, poetically and lovingly as this, delivering a strikingly powerful narrative that is as profound as it is honest. Simply put, this movie is an instant masterpiece, and there’s just not any other better way to describe it than that.
It starts with the script. Working from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, screenwriters Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have layered things in a way that feels fresh and new. They’ve taken the melodrama to a new plateau in some ways, eschewing James L. Brooks and Douglas Sirk tendencies to instead deliver something that comes at you in as intimate a fashion as anything I’ve had the pleasure to experience. There is no maudlin sentimentalizing here, no pushing of the buttons, no playing of the heartstrings as if they were the threads of a harp. Instead, Payne and company let their story unfold itself delicately, almost simplistically, letting Matt journey of self-discovery, parenthood and forgiveness play itself out as genuinely as possible.
Then there is Clooney himself. Never has he been this good, not even his Oscar-winning performance in Syriana or his terrific turns in films like Michael Clayton or Good Night, and Good Luck come close to touching what it is he accomplishes here. There is an authenticity to his portrayal of a man on the emotional edge that rings continually true, depths he touches that reached so far down they managed to touch the depths of my soul. This is a Clooney unlike any we’ve ever seen before and maybe never see again, and like Spencer Tracy or Victor McLaglen or Henry Fonda or James Stewart or Gregory Peck before him he manages to find an innate humanity inside the complicatedly mundane that could very well lead to a Best Actor Academy Award.
Not that the supporting cast isn’t up to the challenge. Beau Bridges, Robert Forester, Nick Krause, Judy Greer and others all make an indelible mark, each casting a formidable shadow that allows the movie to move and evolve and change with each dramatic heartbeat. Even Lillard gets into the act, showcasing a depth of fortitude and talent one would be forgiven for not taking much note of in any of his previous efforts (including Scream or Love’s Labour’s Lost).
But it is young Woodley who impresses the most. She doesn’t just hold her own with Clooney, she matches him beat for beat, scene for scene, moment for moment, and in the process makes the character an instantly unforgettable scion of teenage disconnect and yearning anyone of any generation can easily relate to. It’s a star-making turn hinting at potential greatness to come, and here’s hoping the young actress stays the course and becomes just the kind of phenom this performance proves she’s got the ability to someday transform herself into.
There’s more to be said, I’m just not sure it’s worthwhile to put it all onto paper now. I could talk about how superb the editing is, how beautifully Payne paces things or how his use of music is beyond spot-on. I could comment about Phedon Papamichael’s (The Ides of March) glorious cinematography and how each and every image feels perfect and never out of place. But the bottom line is that Payne has kept things small, let the focus stay exactly where it needs to be, never losing sight that Max and his daughter’s saga is the universal driving force fueling everything else surrounding it. As I’ve already stated, The Descendants is an instant masterpiece, and I imagine it is going to be a motion picture I’m going to be waxing poetic about for decades to come.”
I honestly believe that, out of the nine nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture, this is the film that should have won. The Descendants touched me to my core, moves me to profound bits of laughter and tears on each viewing. It is a great motion picture, plain and simple, and I do not feel any more than that needs to be said on the matter.
The Descendants is presented on a dual-layer 50GB Blu-ray MPEG-4 AVC Video with a 1080p 2.40:1 transfer.
This disc features English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 along with French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks and includes optional English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
Extras here include:
· Deleted Scenes with Director Introductions (5:46)
· Everybody Loves George (7:27)
· Working with Alexander (13:34)
· The Real Descendants (12:06)
· Hawaiian Style (16:47)
· Casting (8:11)
· Working with Water (10:58)
· Music Videos (10:28)
· Waiting for the Light (2:52)
· The World Parade - Hawaii (9:55)
· A Conversation with George Clooney and Alexander Payne (11:58)
· Original Theatrical Trailer (2:14)
Lots of great stuff here, but the short interview piece with Clooney and Payne might be the most interesting as the two cover a ton of ground in an incredibly brief period of time. The Real Descendants is also a great add, the featurette covering a real Hawaiian family who own large parcels of land on the islands in much the same way that the Kings do in the movie. Also fantastic, The World Parade – Hawaii short film, this silent one-reel doc about as wonderful an addition as any I could have hoped for.
A lot of it does feel a bit like EPK-style filler, that is unmistakable, but I still enjoyed watching the majority of these extras all the same. I could have probably done without the music videos (they’re all nice, just superfluous), while the Waiting for the Light extra is also on the lightweight and pointless side.
The Descendants came in at number two on my list of 2011’s Best Films right behind A Separation. It very easily could have come in at number one.