By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 29, 2012 at 4:24PM
If "The Descendants" has a wild card in beating "The Artist," the front runner, for best picture, it's the George Clooney factor. He elevates the dramedy written and directed by Alexander Payne to cathartic heights. Oscar-nominated editor Kevin Tent knew this from the start, he says. Instead of relying on his usual movie star charm and looks, Clooney taps something deep inside in portraying the immature Matt King, who must confront his three biggest fears: emotional intimacy, parental responsibility, and obligation as a descendant holding on to a little piece of Hawaiian paradise.
"Early on, in those scenes shot inside the house and by the pool, I thought he just did a great job," says Tent. He also believes, after working with Payne on five films, that this is his best. Tent characterizes him as "the Mark Twain of contemporary American cinema: an observant humanist and humorist with a slightly cynical or critical eye."
Indeed, that's why Tent says the biggest challenge was sustaining the shifts in tone, particularly in pulling back on some of the wackier moments in favor of the pathos. "We just felt it was being insensitive to what the characters were going through," he adds." But then King and his dysfunctional family and friends are hard to pin down, which makes them all the more fascinating to watch. Just when you think you've figured them out, they suddenly do something unexpected, forcing you to reevaluate them.
For example, in a meeting with his amiable cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) at a crowded bar, King discovers a darker aspect to a proposed family land deal tied to the lover of his wife, who lies in a coma. The stunned King sits back down with his two daughters and softly hits his head against the wall in profile while the band plays in the background. He hits his head again in a full close-up. It's the kind of propulsive moment of revelation and reversal that enables the traumatized King to eventually emerge from his spiritual coma.
Yet Tent says they agonized over that revelation. Payne shot a lot of footage, cutting back and forth between the band playing, some locals laughing and getting drunk, and building to a crescendo with King feeling overwhelmed. But they realized that their intense cutting style, which was as a throwback to the '60s, was out of place tonally with the rest of the movie. They were better off relying on Clooney to carry the moment in two simple shots.
"The way he sits down to absorb the news is one of my favorite performances in the whole movie," says Tent. "We made the right decision. Instead of letting a filmmaker comment on the situation, we let George say everything emotionally."
But the key was a dissolve that was later inserted after the profile shot, in which King is then seen walking along the beach with his daughters. It reveals how he's gone from being stunned to being ready to turn his life around. "I love dissolves," Tent admits. "We use a few of them and this is one of my favorites: I like the way the clouds look and George's face."
It's a wonderful contrast with the peculiar way King runs out of the house wearing flip-flops when he finds out from his daughter that his dying wife's been unfaithful. "We slowly come out of that scene with him and his daughter, and that's good because it allows the impact to weigh in," Tent continues. "Then we go to him running and that's funny and to his friends arguing, which is funny, too."
And then there's the bizarre scene in the hospital when King suddenly yells at his comatose wife. Again, it was all due to Clooney's nuanced and natural performance. "It's grim and funny as he unloads on her, and the audience absorbs it very quickly," the editor observes.
Tent and Payne worked hard not to rush the shifts in tone. Rather, they took the time to linger on moments of observation and change. In fact, Payne took inspiration from Yasujiro Ozu's acclaimed "Tokyo Story." The original intent was to emulate some of the abstract beats with transitional shots of Hawaiian skies and landscapes, but they slowed the film down.
"It's about a guy who sees that there's value to his life and history that he's let slip by. On a personal level, there's his immediate nuclear family, and on a bigger level there's his clan and who he is as a person and how he got there," Tent suggests. "And the story lines are running parallel but they're not really connected. And by the end, he's reaching out to his family and to his history as a descendant -- and embracing it as opposed to rejecting it."