August: Osage County (2013) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language including sexual references, and for drug material
Running Time: 121 min.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Misty Upham, Sam Shepard
Director: John Wells
Screenplay: Tracy Letts (based on his play)
Review published January 9, 2014
Tracy Letts (Killer Joe, Bug) would win a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his stage play. "August: Osage County" in 2008, which explores the lives of several members of a dysfunctional family, the Westons, who travel to their childhood home headed by patriarch Beverly Weston (Shepard, Out of the Furnace) and his wife Violet (Streep, It's Complicated), who is afflicted with cancer of the mouth (both literally and figuratively) that causes her to seek a variety of prescription medications that, while alleviating the pain, also makes her exceedingly ornery to others.
After the hiring of a Cheyenne caretaker (Upham, Frozen River) for Violet, and with the rest of the family on the way, Beverly is MIA, only for the police to surface some time later asking for identification of his body in an apparent suicide. Staying for the services are Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Martindale, Win Win), three daughters, and their nuclear families. Pushed to the limit of their patience by Violet's hurtful accusations and destructive behavior, the Oklahoma prairie home erupts with hurtful arguments and deep-rooted angst, exposing a number of family secrets that get rooted out for all to hear, for better or worse.
Though dysfunctional family dramas are not everyone's cup of tea, and the Westons are a more volatile clan than most who've graced the silver screen, August: Osage County emerges as a very thoughtful, insightful, and well-acted drama that manages to break from the staginess of the play to be quite a good dramatic film on its own. The strength of the piece comes from a deeply nuanced performance by Mery Streep as Violet, who must show a variety of different moods and expressions that indicate that she is on different medications at different times, and in what stages.
The supporting cast is also quite strong, especially Margo Marindale as the nearly equally vicious mother Mattie Fae, and Chris Cooper (The Muppets, The Kingdom) as Mattie Fae's long-suffering husband, Charlie, in a smaller role. There's also a good performance in a larger role for Julia Roberts (Mirror Mirror, Charlie Wilson's War) as the eldest and more outspoken of the daughters, who is suffering from a deeply strained marriage of her own. The rest all have at least one chance to shine, though it's hard to standout when you're acting with an ensemble chock full standout actors.
For the script, Letts adapts his own play, condensed from its typical three-plus hours of length to a comparatively brief two, for the more intimate confines of a movie set, and while the film is still on the talky side, there are excursions outside of the home whenever possible to give the scenery some breathing room. There are some things that may work better on the stage, such as the contrived way that each character has to have something that afflicts them emotionally that gets drawn out in the short span of their visit, or the physical confrontations that draw out some of the films multiple sub-climaxes, but it just wouldn't be a faithful adaptation without them. Letts' characters are nuanced and well-developed, and the interactions among them, including the facial expressions that might be too difficult to see from ones seat in the live theater house, make for compelling viewing in a theatrical film setting.
August: Osage County is a film mostly defined by how rich the actor performances are in the key roles, and with a cast like this, it's hard to miss. But, really, the best reason to watch is for Streep, who consistently shows why she is perhaps the most respected actor of our time. Like a viper, she strikes at whomever dares come within hearing distance, and shows no mercy in dressing down her most loved family members cruelly in front of others. Those who fight back only please her, as she can get to unleash more of the same, but with the right of carte blanche.
August: Osage County emerges as an erudite study on the cycle of abuse that occurs in many families, as the caustic and bitter treatment of one's children sees them grow up to cope with difficulties in the same loveless and cold manner. However, despite some deep, psychologically complex themes and great bits of seemingly homespun dialogue, it is the actors are the biggest draw here.
©2014 Vince Leo