Reports of Alexander Payne losing his edge have been greatly exaggerated. His first feature after a seven-year hiatus might lack the acerbic bite of previous work, but it’s got the quiet human tragedy in spades.
There’s a bitter, black core to The Descendants’ story of Matt King (George Clooney), a Hawaii based lawyer who becomes a single dad after an accident leaves his wife comatose.
Payne revels, as ever, in emotional discomfort – from the bathos of Matt giving his eldest daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), life-altering bad news in the pool, to the scene in which he spits barbs at his unconscious wife.
What resonates isn’t the absurdity, but the mundanity. Life with a loved one in a coma is often portrayed as relentlessly dramatic – here, everyday life goes on.
The chance to hand-wring would be good for Matt, who spends most of his time stoically dealing with tricky in-laws, an iffy land-development deal and Alexandra’s idiotic boyfriend. None of these indignities lessen the family’s horror; Clooney’s un-showy desperation keeps the tragedy immediate.
Dramatically muted and visually unremarkable, The Descendants is so self-effacing you don’t realise its impact until afterwards. It’s a poignant drama about when to relinquish and when to hold on.
Featurette highlights include love-in ‘Everybody Loves George’ and a chat/anecdote-fest.