Let’s start with a line I Tweeted immediately after viewing August: Osage County:
August: Osage County was brilliant and anyone that disagrees can go right to hell.
— Thomas D-D (@ThomasDearnley) January 26, 2014
Throwing down the gauntlet here in the midst of decidedly mixed reviews, I was challenging anybody to sit through John Wells’ film of Tracey Letts Tony-award winning play about the darkness and poison at the heart of the dysfunctional Weston family and genuinely come away feeling like they’d been cheated of two hours of their time. Sure, it leans towards the melodramatic, but this pitch-black comedy was adapted from one of the best Broadway plays of recent years and is filled with a top notch cast.
Meryl Streep plays Violet Weston, a pill-popping, snarling gargoyle of a matriarch whose marriage to Beverley (Sam Shephard) is held together only by a mutual understanding: she has her pills, he has his alcohol. Beverley then commits suicide – by drowning himself, appropriately enough – and this brings home the entire extended, damaged clan. Put-upon middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the only one to have remained in Oklahoma, and she’s joined by eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), who returns with her recently separated husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and surly teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), while relentlessly upbeat youngest sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) shows up with smooth new fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney) in tow.
Rounding out this messed up bunch are Violet’s sister Mattie Fay (Margo Martindale), imbued with similar tendencies towards antagonising and criticising others, in particular her long-suffering husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and doltish son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). To say that putting these characters together under one roof creates a powder keg effect is an understatement: conflicts explode left, right and centre from the get-go, and the action doesn’t really let up for too long throughout.
The most harrowing scene is the 20-minute showcase sequence that places the entire family around the dinner table after Beverley’s funeral. Violet is drugged up and in fine form; she systematically proceeds to ‘truth tell’, as she puts it, indulging in a series of sustained attacks designed to provoke every single person round the table. And boy, does she succeed as Barbara finally erupts and physically attacks her mother. Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep are both particularly effective in this scene, with Streep deftly playing the notes of one of the most manipulative mothers ever committed to film while Roberts’ burning rage flies off the screen.
It’s a situation that everyone in the audience can relate to. We’ve all had to suffer awkward family dinners where resentments bubble under the surface, ready to boil over at any moment – though pills, suicide and incest are less often involved. And that’s the catharsis that August: Osage County provides us – most families can never be as bad as this one, rotten to the core as they are.
Needless to say, the movie does not end on a happy note. One by one the characters flee, unable to handle the toxic atmosphere. Particularly affecting is Julia Roberts in her final scene, driving along the open road and pulling over to try and process her emotions. In the space of a few seconds, she registers several emotions: regret, sadness, anger and finally feelings of exhaustion and the need to escape. Roberts is usually thought of as a movie star first and actress second, but the raw emotion she displays in August: Osage County reminds us of just how good she can be when given the chance.
Going back to my earlier Tweet, what I was rallying against here were some of the decidedly mixed reviews the movie has received since its release and some of the criticism that missed the point. I’m also aware that what we’re getting into here is meta-criticism, that is to say criticism of the criticism, something which has exploded since Lena Dunham’s Girls came on the air and thinkpieces began to pop up everywhere dissecting the nature of the dissection of the show. Quite the rabbit hole.
But the negativity surrounding August: Osage County bears discussion, too. In the most coherent of the middling reviews, the consensus seems to be that by cutting an hour from the original material and trying to soften some of the play’s darker edges, the film-makers have lost what packed such a punch in the first place. There is a truth to that, especially at the end of the movie where it’s clear that the film-makers vacillated between cutting at the bleak moment of the play’s original ending and adding on a more – not Hollywood ending, exactly – but a more palatable conclusion for the film.
More problematic for critics apparently seems to be the sheer scale of the acting involved. Streep’s performance has been singled out as particularly overblown, with the normally level-headed TV and film writer Ken Levine saying of her Oscar nomination that she ‘gets nominated just for showing up‘. No, Mr. Levine: whatever you think of the ludicrousness of awards season, Meryl Streep is one of the most talented film actors of any generation, and though similar accusations were levelled at her of her work in Doubt and Julie & Julia, I defy anyone to deny the emotional truth of those characters and the moments – even if they are just moments – of utter beguilement during any of her performances.
To that end, the supporting cast does a great job matching Streep and Roberts, even if some have less to do than others (Juliette Lewis gets a particularly raw deal in this respect, as I suspect due to cuts from the original material her backstory is hinted at rather than focused on in any meaningful way).
Like the similarly performance-based American Hustle, August: Osage County seems destined to be remembered for the actor’s performances rather than the movie itself, but maybe that’s fine: this is an uncomfortable, brutal yet often hilarious film that dares to look at not only what keeps families together, but – in a divergence from Hollywood’s nuclear-heteronormative ideals – what ultimately tears them apart.