The Descendants: George Clooney’s Career-Best

George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

George Clooney manages to turn in a career-best performance as a father of two daughters in the Hawaiian-set The Descendants.

Alexander Payne adapts Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel for the screen in true cinematic fashion.  Because of the whole cheating aspect, this probably isn’t a film that could have been released during the Production Code era.  Regardless, it’s one of my favorite films from 2011.  In a perfect world, George Clooney would have won an Oscar for Best Actor.  It’s his finest performance to date if you ask me.

Matt King (George Clooney) has a lot on his plate.  His wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is comatose following a boating accident.  This leaves Matt forced take care of their two daughters, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller).  Scottie bullies other students at school while Alexandra is a true rebel.  She also has a secret that her father doesn’t know about–Elizabeth was having an affair.

While Matt is busy taking care of his own immediate family, he’s also the sole trustee of the family trust.  His cousins beg him to sell the 25,000-acre land.  Unlike other family members, Matt doesn’t have financial issues.  Selling the land isn’t something he wants to do.  As you can imagine, this doesn’t sit well with cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges)

Not so much plot-focused but I love how beautiful the penultimate scene is shot and written.  Until Matt King says something after scattering Elizabeth’s ashes, the only sounds we here are mainly the score.  I wouldn’t change a thing.  The visuals, more or less, allow the scene to speak for itself.  We know they’re there to say goodbye.  If anything, I would have ended the film with that scene.  Granted, it’s been some time since I last read the book.  But since it’s better to end things on a happy moment, we next see the King family gathered on the couch to watch March of the Penguins.

While Clooney is the obvious star of the picture, Shailene Woodley delivers a breakout performance.  She’s more than capable in holding her own against Clooney.  The actress was starring in The Secret Life of an American Teenager at the time of release.

Phedon Papamichael, a frequent collaborator of Alexander Payne, handles the cinematography duties.  This is a cinematographer who knows his way around the camera.  Moreover, he beautifully captures the landscape when we’re not focused on family drama.  The cinematographer might not have been nominated for an Oscar but he should have been.

The Descendants remains one of the best films of 2011.

DIRECTOR:  Alexander Payne
SCREENWRITERS:  Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
CAST:  George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause, Amara Miller, Mary Birdsong, Rob Huebel, Patricia Hastie

Fox Searchlight Pictures opened The Descendants in theaters on November 18, 2011. Grade: 5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.