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Alexander Payne achieves new heights in “The Descendants”



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.


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.

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  1. deegeesbb
    December 1, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    Good post, Leo. After coming home from The Descendants I did the numbers, as in number of car chases and crashes, explosions, helicopters, and guns. With the sum of 0, I knew the film was working the right field.

    While Quentin Tarantino reportedly uses film references, I miss quite a few and have them explained by annoyed experts, my kids. While I’m not sure about Alexander Paynes’ references, they seep in slow and deep.

    Kevin Costner’s role as a dead man in The Big Chill is a minor role compared to Patricia Hastie as the wife in a coma. Not since Million Dollar Baby has a character shown the true effects of being stricken.

    The close-ups of George Clooney reminded me of Richard Gere in Days of Heaven. The shots of Hawaii made the islands a main character.

    Through out The Descendants, Alexander Payne made choices that built the story instead of adding shock value. Letting the good guy win while he stayed true to his character was a treat I didn’t expect. Using the ‘urn-cam’ was inspired.

    Finding a great post by Leo Biga is something I’ve come to expect.


    David Gillaspie


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