There are very few films that successfully tackle heavy subject matter in such a way that it never make viewers or the film feel bogged down, and there are even fewer filmmakers who can pull it off. Despite its story about the pain and anger of infidelity and death, you actually walk away from 'The Descendants' feeling uplifted – which wouldn't be possible without its brilliant director Alexander Payne ('Sideways') being at the very top of his game. Of course, without his cast and crew, none of this would be possible – but we'll get into that shortly.
'The Descendants' tells the story of Matt King (George Clooney), a husband and father who has become so wrapped up in his work that his family has been placed on the back burner for some time. When the film opens, his wife, Liz, is in a coma from taking a nasty spill in a speed boat accident during a race in the Hawaiian harbor near their home. This unexpected event has made Matt exam his life and recognize the need to change, to be present in his home and to become a better a husband and father. The change necessary to get Matt where he should be will to prove to be even more daunting when he learns that Liz's brain trauma is so severe that she only has a few more days to live.
Knowing that his nine-year-old daughter Scottie is going to have a hard time with the news, Matt takes her on an island hopping trip to the boarding school her troubled older sister Alex (Shailene Woodley) attends. Alex has been into drugs and alcohol for some time, but Matt wants her home for two reasons: for her to have the chance to made amends with her mother before she passes away, and to help him soften the blow when Scottie finally hears the news.
At the same time, being the sole trustee for a group of descendants that own thousands of acres of pristine Hawaiian property, Matt and his cousins are in the process of selling their inheritance for a potentially massive sum. Matt hasn't blown his inheritance due to owning a successful small law practice, but all of his cousins have. They are hard up for cash, so the pressure is on Matt to hurry and sell the land to the highest bidder. This only adds another layer of pressure and stress to Matt's awful scenario – but it gets worse.
Spoiler from the film's trailer. When Alex comes home, she breaks the news to her Father that Liz had been cheating on him for some time. From then on, the film banks on the question that applies to every situation – how are you going to react? We can't choose what happens to us or what others are going to do to us, but we can choose what happens next. If you realized that your dying comatose spouse was cheating on you up until the last coherent moments of her life, what would you do? If your daughters were going through hard times, what would you do? If your cousins were putting pressure on you to sell your family inheritance, something that you were literally trusted to protect, what would you do? What would you do if you ever met the individual that your spouse was sleeping with behind your back? While you watch every single one of these questions answered in the film, you will take an introspective turn and ask yourself the same questions – what would I do?
As I watched this Blu-ray with my wife, she asked me, "What would you do?" I'm sure I'd more than likely blow up and freak out, but I'd hope that I could keep my composure and do it in the most positive fashion. First, Matt has a minor freak out like we all would. Second, he gathers all of his and Liz's friends so that he can share the terrible news with them all at once, giving them the heads-up to go and say their goodbyes while she's still around. Seeing their reaction and knowing that Liz was in love with the mystery man, he feels compelled to meet the guy who was sleeping with his wife, tell hims that she's dying and give him the chance to also say his goodbyes. Of course, things don't always go as planned, so 'The Descendants' isn't as predictable as it may sound.
The characters in this ensemble story are what make this film work. None of it would be possible without the actors, some of whom were completely unknown prior to this shoot. As always, Clooney brings a natural performance to the screen, but it's the subtlety of his performance that makes 'The Descendants' great. He pulls off the serious moments with quiet perfection while at the same time delivering small comedic gestures that keep the material from slipping into purely dark and depressing areas. Surprisingly rising to the occasion is Woodley, standing on the same level as Academy Award winning Clooney. With a single film she has now become one of my favorite young actresses.
Helping the film move along, and adding to the emotional impact, is a fantastic set of side characters also played by great actors. Each of these characters is given a moment to shine, something to reflect on. Playing Liz's father is a Robert Forster, an angry father too busy taking care of his dementia-inflicted wife to mourn over the impending loss of his only girl. Forster (who I interviewed back in October) hasn't had a part this good in years, and he hits it out of the park. Alex asks a dummy pothead friend named Sid to join them on this little adventure to help her get through it. Sid is also given a strong moment of revelation, as well as many scenes where – despite being an idiot – he's the voice of reason. Matthew Lillard plays the pushy real estate broker that Liz was sleeping with and he too carries a strong scene. Judy Greer also shows up for a few perfectly crafted scenes. All of these characters, big or small, known actors or recently discovered, show up and worthily play in the same league as George Clooney. Only a brilliant director like Alexander Payne could pull this off.
If you'll take the time to shut off the world, sit down, and bask in the pure emotion of love, life, heritage and loyalty that 'The Descendants' carries, then you'll understand exactly why it walked away with the Best Adapted Screenplay award at the Oscars. You might even walk away with a more positive attitude and outlook on life than you had before. But the one sure thing is that you will be impressed by the all around perfect filmmaking. There's a reason that 'The Descendants' is so critically acclaimed and was nominated for so many awards – it's a fantastic film. If you haven't had a chance to see it yet, now you have no excuse.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Fox Searchlight has given 'The Descendants' a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack. The Region A BD-50 and DVD copies of the film are housed in a two-disc blue elite keepcase. The Digital Copy can be found on the DVD disc and the code to unlock it is included. Also included in the case is a $4-off coupon for the Blu-ray release of 'My Week with Marilyn.' The keepcase slides vertically into a glossy cardboard slipcase. The slipcase is so slick that pricing and promo stickers can be perfectly removed if you do so carefully. Upon popping the disc into your player, you're forced to watch a Fox vanity reel and an FBI warning, but you can skip right over the disclaimers, the Fox world cinema ad and the trailers for 'We Bought A Zoo' and 'Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.'
'The Descendants' has been given such a strong 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that it will make you want to get up and vacation in Hawaii immediately. The strength of this transfer never lets up.
As the opening titles for the film take the screen, the background slides around the color wheel to reveal bold and vibrant colorization of the film's palette. This beautiful color scheme does more justice for the location than a "Visit Hawaii" ad. This vacation hotspot has never looked more appealing than it does on this Blu-ray. As our cast lounges on the beach, you'll swear you can feel the warmth of the strong Hawaiian sun beating down on you too.
Details are always sharp and extremely defined. Even when the camera appears to be placed at a distance, you can still make out all objects with perfect clarity. If Clooney moves closer to the camera and the operator has to rack focus, we can still see his peppered stubble as clear as if he was standing still. When we meet Troy, the reckless driver of the speed boat that cause Liz's accident, we can see the fine details of his hydrogen peroxide blonde hair and the texture of his leathered alligator skin.
Fleshtones are warm and lifelike. Black levels are inky and rich. Bands, artifacts and noise aren't a problem and Fox's transfer is so clean and clear that there was no need for edge enhancement or DNR. There are, however, three small instances of aliasing – once in the hair on the back of Clooney's head, once on Lillard's plaid shirt from a distance and once in the wall-mounted hospital equipment in Liz's ICU room. Aside from these three tiny flaws, this picture quality is perfect.
From the very opening as the drums kick off the Searchlight vanity reel, the strength of this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is evident. Aside from lulls here and there, the audio is also downright fantastic.
The film begins with a short dialog-less clip of Liz sitting on the back of a speeding boat that's popping up and down on the choppy waters of some Hawaiian harbor. With each rise and fall, you can her the motor working hard, then letting up. You can hear the water splash each time the boat sinks back into the water. Combine the perfectly mixed traditional music with these dynamic effects and the video quality, and you're really aching for an impromptu Hawaii vacation.
Following the credits is a voice-over narration by Clooney explaining how, from the viewpoint of someone who lives there, Hawaii isn't quite the paradise that mainlanders think it is. During his voice-over, Clooney's voice is clear and bold. The bass of it resonates deeply. In fact, anyone with a low tones in their voices also possess this strong characteristic.
The environmental ambient sounds from the film can always be heard. If we're outdoors, we can heard the gulls cawing, waves crashing, the ocean wind blowing through the trees and dogs barking in the distance. When in the hospital, we hear the pumps and machines breathing for Liz and the nurse chatter in the hallways. All of these sounds and more emit from all channels. The only problem with the mix are a few occasions of downtime where nothing seems to be happening at all. For example, one location near the shore warranted lots of sounds during the daytime shots, yet during the nighttime shots when the beach cannot be seen at that same location, we hear nothing. Luckily, these instances are rare.
While the included features are nice, this disc could have benefited from less ego-stroking and more hearty content – like a commentary track and a featurette explaining how the Academy Award winning screenplay came about from the book.
I've heard all the arguments for why some viewers haven't thought too highly of 'The Descendants,' but upon viewing it for a second time, I realized that every complaint can be wiped clean after giving it a second chance. Everything that I enjoyed about it the first time was still just as enjoyable, but I noticed more positive things than I did on the first go – and it was already a 5-star film to begin with! The heavy drama at hand is offset by the uplifting, optimistic, and positive point of view, but none of that would have been achieved without the presence of the strongest actors and a brilliant director. Under the direction of Alexander Payne, George Clooney and company pull off one of the very best films of 2011. The Blu-ray does the film justice. The exceptionally strong audio and video qualities transport you to Hawaii and make you never want to leave. The special features are very good, but honestly could have been just a tad better. The majority of the things in your life are out of your control, but what you can control is your reaction. That's the idea that 'The Descendants' explores. If you'll take a time out of life and give it your full attention, you'll understand exactly why it earned the praise that it did.