The Descendants begins by using a device which has, during the entirety of my movie-going career, indicated to me roughly eighty percent of the time that the movie I’m about to watch is going to be bad. The device is the voice-over, and writer/director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) uses it exclusively for the opening 15 minutes.
Voice-overs are bad eighty percent of the time because they are cop-outs eighty-percent of the time. They have no reason to exist except to explain things, and as any two-bit screenwriting instructor could tell you, in movies we like to be shown things, not told them.
But here the voice-over does not doom the film. It is actually used quite well. Perhaps this is because the man doing the talking is George Clooney. Clooney’s voice suggests a calm so remarkable it makes you want to pinpoint its source—it could be the world-weariness of someone who’s seen it all (Michael Clayton), the self-possession of someone with an unimpeachably high opinion of himself (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou), or just someone who has been cool for so long they’ve forgotten how to be vulnerable (the Ocean movies).
It is the voice of a man who should always be in control—always of himself, and eventually the situation. Michael Clayton played with this persona a little bit by putting Clooney’s character—a corporate lawyer who specializes in cleaning up messy situations, not through ingenuity or deviousness but just by assuming that the simple, dumb solutions will always work best in a simple, dumb world—in a situation where he cannot grasp the logical consequences of being simple and dumb: he thinks a colleague who is in possession of some potentially damaging information, and who thinks corporate interests are out to get him any way they can, is simply being crazy. But the other side has made its own simple calculations, and the basic urge for self-preservation is indeed causing them to come after anyone who gets in their way. Michael Clayton returns Clooney’s self-possession to him by the end of the film, though—the filmmakers probably thought it would be asking too much of the audience to fade to black with Clooney still in a state of uncertainty.
(Caution: Spoilers ahead)
Uncertainty is what The Descendants is all about. The primary reason for this is the fact that the middle-aged Matt King, the character played by Clooney, has just nearly lost his wife to a jet-ski accident. She is in a coma; unresponsive and kept alive by a ventilator. King owns up to having been a neglectful husband and father, and proclaims he will be better when his wife awakens.
The standard arc for a story which begins this way would be for us to discover, step by step, exactly what might have made King a neglectful husband and father. His wife was a risk-taker, and there is the suggestion that much of that risk may have been due to him. King seems like a pretty good guy, although he definitely has been largely absent in his daughters’ upbringing. He has been busy running his own law firm—a subject of some interest, since he is actually a member of a family which, due to its historical ties to Hawaii, possesses tremendous wealth in the form of real estate. King could have chosen not to work, and simply lived the life of a rich landowner. But he chose to stay away from the hereditary money and became decently well-off as a lawyer.
There seems to be much history to mine, and many revelations to come. But the past never really focuses any more sharply than the fuzzy picture we get at the beginning. Most of the plot of the movie deals with King and his oldest daughter trying to track down a man who was having an affair with his wife (King is unaware of this for some time into the film). They eventually do find him. But even then there is almost no additional information, no catharsis. It was an affair. It happened.
What you realize at some point—and not the end, it comes around the mid-point of the film—is that King (and by extension the audience) is never going to find the answers. There is still so much confusion even after he figures out everything he can. What was his wife looking for? Did she no longer love him? Where had it gone wrong? Could he do anything to change it? The only person who could maybe answer those questions is slowly fading away into oblivion. There is a movie-solution which could provide answers in the form of heartfelt confessions and devastating reveals, but Payne isn’t interested in those. He wants us to feel what it may be like, to have so much left to forgive, and even more to learn, and yet be robbed of even the possibility. It is one of the most grown-up ways to approach the end of life that I’ve ever witnessed in a film.
I thought Sideways, Payne’s last movie, was great. I don’t think The Descendants is quite that. There are secondary threads to the plot which never quite come together as a whole, and unlike Sideways the laughs never reach the point where you feel as if you are being asked to celebrate life as well as examine pain. But seeing King stare at his wife’s battered, never-to-awaken body as life bleeds away from it on a hospital bed, understanding he will never know and never have another chance, and ultimately forcing himself to come to grips with it—rings a note somewhere very deep, and very true. It’s as if George Clooney’s incredible calm has been preparing him to meet this moment for a long time. He has an emotionally devastating scene, then… surprise, when the end credits roll, he is calm again. And I feel as if I know a little bit better why.