Why The Descendants is a Great Movie
How do we judge a great movie? How do we really know when a film has risen above the average and become something transcendant? How are we to understand when a film, although it might not perform at the box-office, and might not have any explosions or chases or gun battles, and might just be an examination of human nature; how are we to know when it rises above just being good?
Among other things, a great movie avoids clichés. A great movie doesn't ever deliver the line we think we're going to hear. A great movie doesn't serve up catharsis just because that's the thing to do and it makes the audience happy. Of course, there are many other things great movies do, but these are critical if a movie is to be something special.
Writer/Director Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" is a great film and I'll use a few examples to explain why.
When Matt King (George Clooney) first meets his 17-year-old daughter Alexandra's friend, Sid (Nick Krause), Sid gives him a hug and says something funny. Matt's response is a terse "don't ever do that again." While Matt and Sid eventually have a moment (and I'll address this momentarily), a lesser movie would attempt to bring closure to this sequence by having another hug occur later in the film. Fortunately, Payne understands that such things cheapen a movie and cheapen any claim such a film has to understanding human nature. While such things may, in fact, be satisfying, they are also shockingly false. Great movies never forget this. They don't give in to that impulse to satisfy artificially.
Matt and Sid do have a moment. It occurs when Matt wakes up, unable to sleep, and goes outside and wakes up Sid, who's sleeping on the couch. They begin talking and Matt asks Sid what he would do in Matt's position, which is kind of awkward because Sid is kind of a goofball. Ultimately, it's a further sign about how lost Matt is. However, toward the end of the conversation, Sid reveals that his father died in a drunk driving accident very recently. It's a very unexpected thing for Sid to say and even more unexpected in how he says it. A lesser movie would have had Matt say something profound or express remorse, but Payne just has Matt contemplate for a few moments and say "good night". It's a rare, special movie that realizes more can be conveyed when nothing is said.
If you're unfamiliar with "The Descendants", it takes place in Hawaii and begins right after Matt's wife is injured in a boating accident and lies in the hospital in a coma, brain dead. Not only does this force Matt to parent his children, but he also has to confront the revelation that his wife was having an affair. Toss in a land sale that could make Matt and his relatives millionaires, and Matt's world gets tossed into the air like a deck of cards.
When films, directors, and actors understand that it's more compelling to convey meaning through images and through what's not said than what is "delivered," they offer their movie the opportunity to become transcendant and great. Catharsis is rarely achieved, but sometimes understanding is. Alexander Payne clearly gets this. "The Descendants" does this in a critical scene toward the end of the movie when, as Matt's wife lies in her coma, about to die, her father (Robert Forster) comes to visit. Matt and Scott (Forster) don't have a good relationship. Scott basically blames Matt for his wife's condition, going so far as to call her a "faithful" wife.
If you're a regular moviegoer, this is a like a giant alarm bell for Matt to let this guy have it. Alexandra and Sid are sitting right there, knowing full well that Scott's daughter was anything but faithful. But you know what? Matt doesn't say anything. He just agrees with Scott. It says everything about Matt's evolution as a person that he doesn't say anything. He realizes that these are Scott's last moments with his daughter, who's about to die. Matt just doesn't need to ruin Scott's image of his daughter. He might want to. He might want to very badly. He might one day let him know. This moment just isn't the time.
These aren't the only details that make "The Descendants" a great movie. There are many others, from George Clooney's fantastic performance to the way Payne uses Matt's decision about whether or not to sell a huge parcel of pristine land as a metaphor for the impact his wife's accident has on everyone, but mostly him.
A great piece of dialogue is one in which you have no idea what the next word is going to be and a great movie is a story that evolves in new and unexpected ways. Of course there are many elements that go into making a great movie. It's just that a truly great movie usually isn't derivative and predictable.
Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" is a great movie, which is why it's getting so much recognition.