Thursday, January 9, 2014

August Osage County

The first time we see Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) she’s drugged out (since getting diagnosed with mouth cancer and going through treatment she’s gotten hooked on a variety of pills) with skin as pale as a ghost. Her hair is short and thin like it’s about to fall out (as we later see she usually wears a wig) and she stumbles down the stairs of her Oklahoma house shouting and slurring. She then barges into her husband Beverly’s (Sam Shepard) office, while he’s interviewing the future housekeeper Johnna (Misty Upham) and proceeds to embarrass herself and them. Yelling at him and knocking books off his shelf. She’s a hot mess for sure, but a compelling one. And so begins the fascinating madness that is “August Osage County,”—directed by John Wells—a wildly entertaining and dour drama about a family in serious crisis.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the screenplay), the action and the development of the characters in “August Osage County” are driven forward by sharp, fiery dialogue Violet and the rest of her dysfunctional family viciously throw at one another. Not long after that opening scene Beverly walks out on Violet (I can’t imagine why, she’s such a pleasant person) and ends up committing suicide.

This tragic event leads to an impromptu family reunion. There’s Beverly and Violet’s three daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis). Then there’s Violet’s sister Mattie (a terrific Mattie Fae Akin) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper). Also, there’s Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), their adolescent daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), Karen’s fiancée Steve Dermot Mulroney) and finally Charles and Mattie’s child Charles Jr. (Benedict Cumberbatch in a small but touching role).

Each family member comes to the reunion with deeply buried secrets or grudges against other family members and to say that the movie contains a lot of feuding and bickering would be a massive understatement. Just about every conversation eventually turns into a heated back and forth; sometimes they’re funny, sometimes shocking and revealing information is offered up to the group and then picked apart like an animal carcass. Whatever’s said though, or rather yelled, I was never bored during any of it.

And while the structure of the film may appear disorganized, you can clearly see a method to the madness. Each argument starts off relatively calm and then gradually, as more bitter words are exchanged (there’s a load of f-bombs), the tension builds, like a rubber band expanding and expanding until it finally snaps. And then the argument keeps going on for another five or so minutes. No family member exits the scene mid feuding because of hurt feelings; in the Westin family an argument is carried through until the bitter end.

Most of the arguments are instigated by Violet (not surprisingly) but it’s not as if the rest of the family are angels; The Westin family is a hurricane, with Violet as the eye. She criticizes, picks and provokes, and her bigotry doesn’t help the situation either. When she isn’t outright scathing she’s sad and pathetic. At the same time, she comes off incredibly confident. Not worried about what other people say or think about her she simply says what’s on her mind and always has a comeback to an insult lobbed at her. Streep gives yet another masterful performance and even if some of the time you detest Violet, you can’t keep your eyes off her.

Although, it should be said that Roberts comes awfully close to equaling her. She’s also tough and confident, never afraid to say what she thinks about Violet or anyone else.  Out of all three of the daughters she resembles her mother the most (Ivy is shy and not as confrontational, while Karen is a bit of a ditz), not just by holding her ground with Violet but also by instigating some of the arguments and causing drama herself. The rest of the actors all do their part in the support department but “August Osage County” belongs to Roberts and Streep, both delivering Oscar worthy performances.

I realize that the constant arguing may get to be too repetitive and exhausting for some, and others may find the movie to be too sad but there’s also a raw, emotional honesty being shown on screen. The Weston family may be mean but also—most of the time-- they’re honest with each other, nothing is sugar coated, no feeling is kept internalized for long. They argue and argue because that’s the only way they know how to communicate with one another. That’s how they’ve probably done in the past and that’s how they’ll do it in the future. It’s hopeless to think that this family travesty will bring them together in a warm embracing family hug. 

Thankfully “August Osage County” never sinks into sentimentality (which, in a movie like this is very easy), the resolution doesn’t wrap up neatly and easily, which won’t go over well with certain general audience members. Even so, the movie never loses sight of itself; it proudly and loudly embraces its aggressive, turbulent ways.


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