Taking Everyone to Task
August: Osage County
Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham
US theatrical: 25 Dec 2013 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 24 Jan 2014 (General release)
Ads for August: Osage County might lead you to think it’s a heartfelt, Southern-fried family semi-drama, featuring a lovably wacky matriarch, her three quirky daughters, and pie. That’s not entirely true. The movie does center on Violet (played voraciously by Meryl Streep), and she does have daughters of varying ages and dispositions. The pie, however, plays a minimal role.
The women’s reunion is inspired by the disappearance of Violet’s husband Beverly (Sam Shepard), a poet and alcoholic who has walked out and come back more than once in the past. As the women wait, along with the caretaker he’s hired for Violet, Johnna (Misty Upham), the family’s difficult history comes to the surface, in the form of tears, drug addiction, cancer, incest, and an extended conversation among the three siblings about exactly what profane term they should use to describe their mother’s vagina. Based on a searing Pulitzer-winning play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the screenplay), the film approaches the family’s emotional carnage with verve, resolve, and Letts’ usual dark humor.
Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives on the scene first. The eldest daughter and her daddy’s favorite, she’s accompanied by her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and resentful daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Though she knows better, Barbara is easily baited by her mother, whom she wants more than anything not to resemble. It may be that she’s pressed into old habits by her sisters, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who stayed in the area and has been looking out for Violet during her chemo, and Karen (Juliette Lewis), who makes her entrance in as loud a way as possible riding with her newest lout of a boyfriend, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), in his Ferrari, blasting Billy Squier.
All of the sisters feel their own anger at Violet, and none feels inclined to forgive her when they learn that Beverly has not just walked out, but has committed suicide. The funeral brings even more relatives to Violet’s house, namely, her perpetually offended sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).
The crowding results in a series of conversations and debates, the arranging of various individuals in conflict and cahoots. Addled by pills and rage, Violet turns the requisite family dinner into a tour-de-force of belittling spitefulness, a scene choked with lurid melodrama. During Violet’s odd lucid times, Streep makes visible what once might have been the good in her, but then her mood and frame of mind shift again, and she’s lashing out at the most vulnerable targets around her. When she strikes at her children, or their partners, she knows exactly how to inflict maximum damage, yet she remains partially sympathetic. She’s both hurt and manipulative, determined to twist everyone’s weakness to justify her own pathology and addiction, but like the rest of the miserable Weston clan, we can’t write her off as a wholly unredeemable monster.
Streep aside, the film can feel restricted by its origins as a play. Like other films so adapted, its locations are limited (primarily set in the Weston house, with occasional drives across the dry Oklahoma plains) and its dialogue is extensive, revolving around everyone’s many miseries. But while such conventions can lead to inert filmmaking, Letts and director John Wells (whose only previous feature was the unremarkable The Company Men), use the limits to make thematic points, smartly keeping the family closed in together, like cave miners trapped in a gas-filled air pocket after a cave-in. No one can get out of anyone else’s way, least of all Violet, who thunders throughout her house, taking everyone to task for their failings.
This structure is so generally well conceived and executed that August: Osage County‘s one horrific flaw comes as that much more of a disappointment. In a cowardly act of horrific focus-groupthink, the film’s producers (including legendary meddler Harvey Weinstein) have seen fit to change the ending, from Letts’ original to an altogether weaker conclusion, a bit of unearned (not to mention nonsensical) hope that might have been culled from Fried Green Tomatoes outtakes. At the Toronto Film Festival screening, Wells said he was still “not sure” this was the right ending for the film. But in the battle of marketing over meaning, we know which wins.