I managed to see The Descendants in a New Jersey theater on an off day from this shoot. The theater screen had a hole in it about the size of George Clooney’s pupil in close-up. It was on the upper left quadrant if you divide the screen by the rule of thirds. There were a lot of times that Clooney’s eye would land right on top of it. It made him look soulless.
That being said, I managed to get past this distraction and enjoy the latest film from Alexander Payne, who’s been on a long hiatus from feature-film directing. This isn’t Payne’s best, but it does feature a lot of his usual touches: characters in mid-life crisis, voiceover, simple but well composed shots, and comedic set pieces.
Clooney plays Matt King, whose wife Elizabeth is in a coma from a boating accident. He has a ten-year old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and a teenage daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). Scottie is clueless about her mom and has a bad mouth. Alexandra has a drinking problem, had a problem with drugs, insists on taking the sweetly idiotic Sid (Nick Krause) everywhere with her, and is the only one to inform Matt that Elizabeth was cheating on him. The rest of the film takes on a road-movie format as Matt learns to become a father, struggles with a big real estate decision that will change the face of Hawaii, and tries to find Elizabeth’s lover.
I’d love to hear why Alexander Payne loves voiceover. I’ve written about voiceover on here before, so I’ll do so sparingly here, but it gets tired fast. In my opinion voiceover is best used as a stylistic trait, homage, or exposition when there’s no other way to do so. I’m written on here about Alan Ball’s use of it in American Beauty, which gives Kevin Spacey’s voice a prescient, omniscient quality that would otherwise be lost with the simple images that accompany it. The opposite is true about Clooney’s Matt King. His VO tells us things we already know (he doesn’t know how to deal with his father) and that we will know (the real estate deal is weighing on his mind). There’s an emotional quality to his voiceover, and a sense of intimacy, as though he’s speaking to us in a whisper, but even that is played out on Clooney’s face. It feels cheap.
But enough of that noise. The Descendants still works because a) the acting is great (Shailene Woodley steals the show and Robert Forster has a great turn), b) the characters are likable, and c) Payne’s direction moves things along quickly and interestingly.
There’s a technique that he uses a few times in here. It’s one that’s not uncommon in filmmaking (Scorsese does it a lot), but that is frequently overused or ill-placed. It’s the unmotivated pan away. A lot of times a camera will move because characters move. This is a motivated camera. In Payne’s film characters will talk about something and then, without any movement from them, the camera will whip pan away to the object they are talking about. When Alexandra and Matt stalk Elizabeth’s lover they find his house. They’re outside talking about it and the camera suddenly moves away from them, framing the house in WS. It’s interesting, must be pre-planned, usually calls for specific sound design (think of all the “wooshes” that takes place during camera moves that have no source onscreen) and gives the camera a little extra life. It actually makes the camera the detective alongside Matt and Alexandra (more on the detective film in a bit), where it leads them (and us) from clue to clue. This technique could be easily overused, but Payne does it only at critical moments. These aren’t true “reveals” in the sense that we don’t really care what the house looks like, but they do reveal the game, which is at once playful, surreptitious, and dangerous.
The Descendants is basically an updated detective film, complete with private eyes (Matt and Alexandra), femme fatales (Elizabeth), unexpected twists (SPOILER: Elizabeth’s lover has something to do with the land deal), violence, and sex (though the latter two are largely minor or in idea only). That the investigatory nature of the film is hidden behind luau music, Hawaiian shirts, high-key lighting, and family dynamics as opposed to tense strings, suits and fedoras, low-key lighting and independent tough guys doesn’t make it any less a thriller than most other genre pieces. Payne is, of course, less interested in genre cliches and his film functions best as dramady first, thriller later.
One of the true difficulties of a film like The Descendants – a film that has a lot of talking in it – is that the scenes may quickly become visually boring. This is where true ingenuity in blocking comes into play. It’s much easier, in my opinion, to block a scene where action is already written into the script. By that I mean: if you write a scene about two people fighting over something, odds are that their movement will be dictated by where that something is and how badly they want it. But if you write a scene where a man has to confront two friends about whether his wife was cheating or not, there’s no such movement inherent. Most of these scenes are made up of minimal shots – three or four in this particular case I think – and fairly standard “interior house” locations. The visual interest then is made up of small movements and creative framing. In the scene I mention here, Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael subtly break the 180 line (an imaginary line that dictates where people should be looking so that, for example, when a film is edited, you look like you are looking at me and I look like I’m looking at you, and not that we’re both looking in the same direction). They do so at a key dramatic moment, but without the fanfare of dollying past it or huge movement. They actually break it on an edit, and if you’re not paying attention to something like that you might just get a very small sensation of some kind of warped perspective.