“August: Osage County” Movie Review

For some reason the only time I even heard of August: Osage County was when awards season was upon us. Maybe I don’t watch enough TV and missed the trailers. Maybe it’s just too far out of the normal nerdy range of my purview. I sort of knew it had existed, but much like Kerri‘s mother, I knew it only as “that friggin’ movie with Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep!” With two of the best actresses in Hollywood starring, it’s got to be good, right? My cursory knowledge led me to believe that it was some kind of generic family drama — which really isn’t far from the truth — but what in the world is it really about?

Though the trailer is lightly misleading, August: Osage County has less to do with warm and fuzzy family bonding, and a heck of a lot more to do with the emotional horrors that family members sometimes inflict upon one another. It’s an adaptation of an award-winning play by Tracy Letts that takes place in rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Beverley (Sam Shepard) and Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) are an aging couple subsisting in a spiteful marriage. Beverley, a formerly successful poet, is driven to alcoholism and Violet, who has mouth cancer, is addicted to prescription medication. After Beverley commits suicide, their three daughters return home for their father’s services, bringing along with them various kinds of spouses, other family members, and a whole slew of emotional and psychological problems. Though each individual character in the drama — including an Uncle, Aunt, Cousin, and Native American Housekeeper — contributes their interpersonal conflicts to the greater plot, the driving force is the emotional war between the viciously angry and certifiably insane Violet Weston with, well, pretty much everyone else.

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Meryl Streep as Violet Weston

You see, Violet is a sharp woman, bitter and cranky and constantly lamenting her lot in life while rummaging together some semblance of dignity, even when she’s stoned on a cocktail of meds. She embodies every negative stereotype a southern midwestern mother could accrue. Violet feels like a character lifted out of a William Faulkner novel. Consumed by a swath of darkness, Violet just brings everyone down with her like a plague. She reminds her daughters that they’ll never be as beautiful as younger women and even accuses one of them of being a lesbian because she “hasn’t found a man” yet. If you’re a man she questions your manhood, and if you’re a woman she makes you feel worthless. She’s angry, crass, offensive, combative and oscillates between extreme moods throughout the movie as she drives every single person out of her life one by one. You never fully come to understand why she is the way she is, and much like her family, you either come to tolerate it or you leave the same way you came.

The next most prominent actress is Julia Roberts as the eldest daughter, Barbara, who left home to free herself from her mother and her father’s intellectual expectations for her. As the eldest, she assumes the bulk of the responsibility in confronting her mother about her issues and trying to clean her up. Barbara is separated from her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and the two bring their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) who embodies the awkward and slightly emo teenager quite well. Barbara’s youngest sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the pretty-thing, wild-child whose materialism and flightiness lands her a different man every year or so. The most recent sampling is a certifiable creep. The middle daughter is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the only one that stuck around to take care of her parents and, as a result, walks with her head hanging low as her mother berates her lack of womanliness. Hint: she’s the one that gets called a lesbian. Spoiler: she’s not. Benedict Cumberbatch also makes an appearance in a minor role as “Little” Charles Aiken, a bumbling fool of a cousin. Apparently he’s been in about every 2013 movie: Desolation of Smaug, 12 Years a Slave, Star Trek: Into Darkness, not to mention Sherlock season three. Seriously though, where does he find the time to do so much? He’s almost more ubiquitous than James Franco, except Cumberbatch actually has class.

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Assorted members of the cast in a brief scuffle.

One of the greatest difficulties in adapting a staged production to the big screen is the setting and, of course, dialogue. Plays must conventionally be well-acted character driven stories with quick, clear dialogue in order to be effective. Set design is more often than not oversimplified or ignored outright for the sake of everything else. But in August: Osage County, despite the fact that the pacing and dialogue still reeks heavily of a staged production (I expect much or all of it is taken directly from the play), Osage County itself enters into the mix as a character of setting. It’s the peak of August, and you can feel the heat in the way that only Osage County feels it. The movie opens with sweeping, scenic shots and the Bon Iver song, Hinnom, TX. While this is clearly not Texas, the song itself expertly captures the quiet oppression of rural life in America along with its subtle yet striking beauty. In watching August: Osage County, we are brought to contemplate the beauty of the place itself, a luxury not granted to us from the stage, and one that is heavily emphasized in the beginning and end to the movie. But we are also brought to boil in the sweltering heat and stale taste in the air.

The fact remains, however, that no matter how much we focus on the place itself, the movie still feels like a play from beginning to end. The cast is relatively secluded, and though they appear out in public on several occasions, they never interact with any extras. It’s all just the acting troupe, and within said troupe each player has their scene or two in which they bear it all on the table. No one, not even the quiet Native American maid, gets left out. They air their frustrations and emotional complications without hesitation or blubbery “uhm…”s. It comes off as a bit jarring and unbelievable to see every single character be so gosh darn emotionally aware that it makes you feel like a stunted idiot out of touch with your feelings. Every person knows what bothers them and they aren’t afraid to tell everyone about it. There’s no passive aggression in this family. There is only candid confrontation.

This is showcased no better than a lengthy scene in the film’s second act. Following funeral services for Beverley, the entire group sits down for lunch at the house. Violet, seated at the head of the table, works her way around the table confronting everyone about everything, starting with mundane and typical critique’s of her granddaughter’s style before eventually grimacing about her own addictions and railing against her eldest daughter. The entire scene is probably close to twenty minutes long and serves as the cornerstone for the entire film with everyone’s problems bubbling up to the surface as everything builds and builds.

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Violet’s view of the table.

While August: Osage County may feel unreal at certain points and forces itself to be restrained by the source material, it is an exceptional film performed by an incredibly talented and recognizable cast. It’s based on a Pulitzer prize winning play, so you know the writing is top-notch. Though the story sits a bit heavy on the soul, it’s ultimately a pleasure to watch and deserves all of its positive acclaim.

Note: It’s currently available on DVD or Blu-ray or to rent via various on-demand services, but I might recommend holding off until it finds it’s way onto some streaming service.

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