Compared to Alexander Payne’s prior films, The Descendants is suitably mellow. The Hawaiian backdrop offers a surface tranquility and beauty to directly underscore how little it has in common with the emotional set of affairs at the heart of the film and its protagonist. A series of revelations, the first (not shown) that his wife is in a coma, throw Matt King (Clooney) into a storm which never ceases to catch him out. The plot is simple yet beautifully understated, Payne wisely opting to leave the pivotal conveyance of information on Clooney’s capable shoulders. Without a great performance this film simply wouldn’t work.
A subplot regarding the selling of the (wealthy) family’s land doesn’t have nearly as much resonance, but other characters are themselves centres of pathos, not least an exceptional Judy Greer.