Alexander Payne Achieves New Heights in ‘The Descendants’
©by Leo Adam Biga
As Alexander Payne‘s new film The Descendants opens in more cities the rest of the fall and into early winter, it will be coming, if it already hasn’t, to a theater near you. No matter how you feel about his work to date, see this picture. If you’re not a big fan of his movies, this one may or may not change your mind, but if you’re being fair I think you’ll at least have to admit that it’s a highly accomplished feat of filmmaking. If you’re already a Payne devotee, then this will be preaching to the choir, but you will see in it his richest, deepest work to this point in his career and further evidence that his maturation as a director is ever growing.
I saw the film for the first time last night (Nov. 20) at Film Streams, the Omaha art cinema whose advisory board he serves on. Like most in the audience I was not only impressed but moved by The Descendants. The film confirms Payne is a masterful writer-director whose work continues to ripen from film to film, indicating that his best work may yet be ahead of him.
Below, are some thoughts I intend to bounce off of Payne in a new interview I’m doing with him this week. I would like to coalesce my thoughts with his comments into a new story before the Oscars. I will be discussing with him certain aspects of the film, including his striking use of many tight shots, the fluidity of the scenes, his restrained yet glowing treatment of the beautiful Hawaiian environs, his subtle yet emphatic emphasis on the deep currents of ancestry and heritage Matt King feels beholden to, the artful way the dying wife is treated, and the deeply felt performances by George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster, and Judy Greer.
Payne seems increasingly comfortable to let emotions play out in extended moments and scenes where early in his career he tended to satirtically deflect or defuse these passages. He’s also made his scene simpler in the way they are shot. His transitions from scene to scene are more fluid. To me, this is evidence of a dawning patience and confidence to let the emotions carry the story and capture the audience rather than to impose some filmic punctuation or comment on the proceedings.
The close-ups that director of photography Phedon Papamichael began getting Payne to use in Sideways are even tighter and more numerous here. It’s rare for a contemporary film to use extreme close-ups to this extent. It’s more in line with Old Hollywood. But it suits this material and Payne and Papamichael and the cast make this stark intimacy pay off with incredibly intimate work that, often wordlessly, conveys deep stirrings of emotion and thought. There’s no hiding or faking it or throwing it away when the camera’s in that close, and thees moments certify just how good this cast is. Clooney has never been better. Woodley is good enough to deserve a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Forster nearly steals every scene he’s in. Greer shows many dimensions in a small but telling part. Everyone is very good.
Then there’s the surprisingly affective performance by Patricia Hastie as Liz, the comatose wife of King. The almost entirety of her screen time is confined to lying unresponsive in a hospital bed. I remember a year and a half ago or so when I first interviewed Payne about the project and his rhapsodic praise for Hastie making her seemingly do nothing part a vital element and her investing everything she had into it. Until seeing the film I was incredulous to imagine how she could do much to make an impact given the great constraints on her character, but now that I have seen it I understand what Payne meant and just how present she is in those scenes with characters variously berating her and saying goodbye to her at her bedside. Hastie took great pains to look like a progressively wasted away human shell who may or may not be able to hear anything being said.
The Descendants is by my estimation and by a lot of people’s estimation Payne’s best film to date. Critical reception to it is universally positive, and as Film Streams director Rachel Jacobson indicated in some of her remarks last night some of the critical response is flat out ecstatic. Audience response seems to be the warmest to any Payne film, which is not surprising given its tragic-comic subject matter, but of course it’s the subtle, sure way he and his collaborators have handled the emotionally charged material that is eliciting this overwhelming response. As he noted himself last night, the film is off to a remarkable box office showing – 10th this past weekend – considering that it is currently in only 29 theaters compared with thousands of theaters for the other nine pictures on the box office rankings list.
YOU CAN READ THE REST OF MY ANALYSIS IN MY NEW BOOK-
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012
A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work. Now vailable for pre-ordering.
- Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Producer Jim Burke and Actress Shailene Woodley Discuss Working with Alexander Payne on ‘The Descendants’ and Kaui Hart Hemmings Comments on the Adaptation of Her Novel (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Hail, Hail ‘The Descendants’ – Alexander Payne’s First Feature Since ‘Sideways’ a Hit with Critics, and the George Clooney-starring Comedy-Drama is Sure to be an Awards Contender (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- When Laura Met Alex: Laura Dern & Alexander Payne Get Deep About Collaborating on ‘Citizen Ruth’ and Their Shared Cinema Sensibilities (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: A Hollywood Dispatch from the set of Alexander Payne’s Sideways – A Rare, Intimate, Inside Look at Payne and His Process (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Alexander Payne, an Exclusive Interview Following the Success of ‘Sideways’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)