When the Family Tree Falls: 'The Descendants'

The best thing here is Clooney, cleverly dropping some of his man's man mannerisms to make Matt less of an idea and more of a human.

The Descendants

Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Beau Bridges
Rated: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-11-16 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-01-27 (General release)

It's paradise, the permanent vacation that everyday Joes and the working stiffs dream about, but for our middle aged hero (George Clooney), it's all historical significance and personal heartache. After a horrible boating accident, Matt King's athletic, overachieving wife has fallen into a coma and her situation has caused even more strain between the distant, workaholic father and his daughters - boarding school housed teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and underage urchin Scottie (Amara Miller). Making matters even more complicated is the impending sale of some ancestral land on one of the main Hawaiian islands. For the collective of cousins and other relatives looking to cash in, Matt is the man with the strategy, and the legal skills, to seal the deal. Still, another secret threatens to destroy his already fragile grip on affairs, both personal and professional.

Thus we have the set-up for another classic Clooney exploration of older man angst. Like Up in the Air, Alexander Payne's The Descendants (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) takes the iconic Hollywood star, dulls his matinee idol machismo, and turns him into a diligent doormat trying to pull himself out from under his various concerns. Most close to home is the issue with his wife and children. He eventually learns that his so-called perfect spouse was having an affair, and even worse, had fallen in love with her new paramour. Sparing the information from her family, Matt is viewed as a disconnected provider who never took advantage of the unique place in Hawaiian history (he is directly related to the last daughter of King Kamehameha) to complete cash in. Instead, he's all ethos and earnest loss.

Aside from the millions the clan inherited, they also own pristine property in a undeveloped area of the islands. With Matt in charge of the trust, he is the subject of speculation and the hard sell from the rest of the King concerns. The news of the affair, as well as the impending deal to sell, has our lead looking back and beyond, the kind of non-cinematic struggle that should sink a dramatic comedy. But thanks to Payne, who played a similar set of cards in films like About Schmidt and Sideways, a combination of local color and careful casting creates a fascinating meditation on what it means to be part of a group and how the status quo is never the proper path in life. For Matt, his idyllic island existence is shattered by situations both indicative and in spite of who he is. He thought he was doing everything right. Turns out, his version of proper flies directly in the face of everyone else.

Payne sets up the story in standard road movie fashion. Clooney wants to meet the man his wife was involved with, and while trying to locate him, he also maneuvers between close relatives (Robert Forester, Beau Bridges) and the changing face of the island. All the while, Alexandra and Scottie act like a girl power Greek Chorus, trying to get their father to focus on what's important. In an unusual move, the adolescents side with their dad, immediately taking his side in the adultery angle. Sure, they blame him for chasing their mom away, but her decision to dump the family and take up with a sleazoid real estate agent (Matthew Lillard) forces their immature hand. Along the way, Payne provides a constant backdrop of Hawaiian highlights, music and memorable vistas which underscore the preservationist subtext of the narrative.

Still, the best thing here is Clooney, cleverly dropping some of his man's man mannerisms to make Matt less of an idea and more of a human. As one of the few actors who can traverse the line between sophisticated and stunted, The Descendants delivers on the promise of his part. At first, we fault him as well, joining the chorus condemning his decision to maintain a certain level of disconnect. But then Matt begins to see the error in those ways. Instead, he opens up, realizes where he made mistakes, and tries to make amends within the structures already set. That means we get moments of father-child bonding, in-law suspicion, and communal concern. Even as the money hungry cousins cajole him into playing ball in their specific pecuniary park, Matt is a man making decisions for himself - perhaps for the first time.

The supporting players add the necessary spark to spur Clooney onward. Both Ms. Woodley and Ms. Miller are excellent at being believably bratty, while Forester gets a couple of powerful speeches. Lillard, when he finally arrives, shows off his scoundrel nature perfectly, and when his meek, mousy wife (Judy Greer) reaches out where her lying husband can't - or won't - her mea culpa is memorable indeed. Better still, Payne rounds things out with the state of Hawaii circa 2011, a place populated by tourists and the escape artists, the locals and the illegitimate. Though he has a deep rooted relationship with the islands, Matt has never really felt 'part' of them. This mid-life crisis adventure changes all that.

The result is an emotionally charged epiphany which draws both audience and actors together. By the end, when Matt is announcing his decision concerning the trust, we see where things are going and couldn't agree more. Along the way, we've laughed and cried, scratched our heads and sat uncomfortably for the inevitable dressing down. Discovery is never easy, especially when so much of your history is known. As the descendent from a long lineage of Hawaiian royalty, Matt King never had much to worry about. Even as a sell-out, he strives to secure the family name. Now, as the sole adult member of his own personal ancestry, he's in trouble. The abandonment of these birthrights make for a new way in this lush oasis. For once, it's the right way.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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