Yes, August: Osage County is essentially two hours and ten minutes of family conflict. And it’s not the kind where a dispute ends because one party charges out of a room in anger, slams a door and shortly thereafter are consoled and things are suddenly alright. No, when it comes to the Weston family, to be yelled at only means you must yell louder in response and, for the most part, I loved almost every minute of it with only a couple of narrative hang-ups that kept it from being one of the year’s best.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (Killer Joe, Bug), the playwright has adapted his own work for the screen and director John Wells (The Company Men) has assembled an impressive cast to bring every acidic word to life. The vein in Julia Roberts‘ forehead has never pulsed so strong as vile hatred spills from her mouth as she plays Barbara Weston, daughter to Violet (Meryl Streep) and Beverly (Sam Shepard), the latter of which has just commit suicide, bringing together a family that’s clearly happier when they’re apart.
As Violet, the pill-popping matriarch “villain” of the film, Streep is in top form. Down goes a pill, “One for me,” and another, “One for the girls.” She stumbles around the house, insulting everyone in her path and she’s just welcomed (or not) a new target, Johnna (Misty Upham), a Native American caretaker hired by Beverly just before he decided to drown himself in the river.
Coming into town for the funeral are Violet’s daughters — Barbara (Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) — along with their significant others. Barbara and her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), have separated, but he has joined her on this occasion along with their daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). Karen has arrived from Miami with her fiancee, Steve (Dermot Mulroney) who decided to rent a Ferrari to drive the dusty back roads, bumping Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It” rather than wear a t-shirt that reads “I’m having a mid-life crisis”, while Ivy is the only sister still residing in Oklahoma’s Osage County, alone… or not?
Finally, Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), Mattie’s husband, Charles (Chris Cooper) and their son “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) have also joined what is to become one of the most disturbing, hate-filled family reunions one ever will see. You’ll be uncomfortable, shocked and appalled, but August: Osage County is not without a serious amount of laughter and a lasting redemptive quality that keeps the chaos in place.
For as much attention as will surely be lavished (and deservedly so) on Streep and her acerbic performance, it’s Roberts’ Barbara that serves as the soul of the film. Unable to see she is becoming her mother and the effect it is having on her now-fractured family, Barbara is sabotaging her own marriage as years of anger, frustration and hate rage within. Accompanying the more negative emotions, Barbara is also dealing with years of pain, denial and an inability to understand, or even recognize, what she has become. Those around her aren’t so naive.
Roberts and Streep, however, are not the film’s only highlights. Lewis and Nicholson provide yet another side to the Weston family daughters. Lewis’ Karen is about as dim as they come, satisfied with any man that would have her, even if it means being wife number four. Nicholson is something of a riddle, Ivy is the only daughter to have remained in shouting distance of her mother. She’s the last one standing, receiving the brunt of the abuse as she looks for the strength to finally cut the cord.
Additionally, Chris Cooper has a fantastic scene, addressing the storm of hatred around him and Martindale is wonderful from the get-go, a bubbling burst of energy out of the gates, quiet at times and incredibly monstrous at others.
I’ve never seen the play from which the film is adapted, so I can’t tell you what’s been added and what’s missing, but the family dinner following the funeral eats up something like 20 minutes of the narrative and it may as well be set in Hell for how ugly it gets and the wrestling match that comes as a result. I loved it. In fact, two of the greatest scenes revolve around food as I simply have to find some way to work, “Eat the fish bitch!” into my life at some point, though I’m afraid my version will be much more lighthearted than Roberts’ delivery.
My two biggest issues with the film revolve around two plot developments that seem to have been included for shock value alone. The skeletons hidden in the Weston family closet are the size of elephants compared to those of any normal family and another act of indecency sends one of the sisters home a little earlier than the rest, but it’s clumsily telegraphed from the beginning and a rather amateur storytelling trope if you ask me.
Osage County is best when it’s seemingly working at random. A late night chat between sisters devolves into Violet telling a sad story from her past, peeling one more layer away of a family in complete disarray.
Wells turned to Cary Fukinaga‘s cinematographer on Jane Eyre and Sin Nombre, Adriano Goldman, to serve as director of photography and boy does he drench this film in darkness and golden hues. I know it’s intentional, but this is still one hell of an ugly film. It’s suitable, but ugly.
The Weston family is ruthless and their story is told in just such a fashion. But the ugliness is written and performed so well I couldn’t help but get tangled in their misery. It felt like someone had finally tapped into the vicious energy of old school Mike Nichols from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Closer. Granted, those two films are personal favorites August: Osage County can’t live up to entirely, but the mere fact I feel compelled to make the comparison and a studio was willing to put such snarling dialogue up on the big screen makes me quite happy.