Although not so confrontational as Election, Payne’s latest retains his wicked sense of humor rooted in discord—the friction between different class-based social expectations, between a purposeful past and an aimless present, between intensity of feeling and ridiculousness of expression. Payne pays great attention to the sound in his films, those little subversive elements in the mix that undercut the most dramatic moments with absurdity, like the flap-flap-flap of King’s docksides as he sprints out of his house, faced with the fact of his wife’s unfaithfulness. “For me, the funniest cut in The Descendants is when Judy Greer goes to the wife’s bedside, says, ‘Hello, I’m Julie, I’m Brian’s wife.’ And then it cuts to the woman’s face”—here Payne, whose conversation is peppered with pantomime, tosses his head back, mouth-agape, imitating the comatose Mrs. King—“That always makes me laugh. That’s a grim cut.”

Later, reclined on a chaise lounge in his large but sparely furnished apartment, Payne imitates Toshiro Mifune’s scrambling, bug-eyed death scene, harried by a torrent of arrows, from Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. This is after we’ve watched a bit of Pigs and Battleships, a hectic 1961 satire by Shohei Imamura, a director whom we both admire. Imamura, Payne says, “just accepts the animal nature of people. He’s kind of a biologist, anthropologist.” We also watch a TV interview with Imamura late in life. “Anybody can act well if I direct them well,” says the Japanese director. “Yes,” says the American. “Drama is about ordinary people, their lives, and the turning points in their lives,” continues Imamura. “Yes, yes,” responds Payne.

There is a sense of sad, stoic acceptance at the end of The Descendants that one more closely associates with Japanese than with Western cinema. This firms my conviction about Payne, whose fine-point regionalism and unpretentious intelligence accompanies a concern in legitimate universal truths: Payne returns so consistently to failure that failure seems to be his definition of life itself. And in place of triumph, he offers only the possibility of small victories before the final, inevitable loss.

Payne at Omaha’s Ruth Sokolof Theater
Rebecca Gratz
Payne at Omaha’s Ruth Sokolof Theater


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When, over lunch, I observe to Payne that his movies aren’t “redemptive,” he replies cheerily, “Thank you!” I want him to admit how unique his position is, to have captured such a large audience while expressing such a basically pessimistic worldview. When I press him, though, he always returns with, “Isn’t that life?”—as if he can’t imagine anyone taking it for anything else. “Look: An elephant dies. All the other elephants stamp”—here he clomps his hands on the table—“and throw dirt around and trumpet”—here he waves his arms to simulate wagging trunks—“and get really depressed.” Now he sits still. “And then they move on.”

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