I scream, you scream, we all scream… in Oklahoma? In Tracy Letts’ cinematic adaptation of his critically acclaimed play, August: Osage County, most characters seem to deliver their dialogue at unnaturally high decibels throughout much of the film. Apparently, according to the recent US awards season nominations for this film, those who yell the loudest on screen get the most attention, with Meryl Streep (Violet Weston) and Julia Roberts (Barbara Weston) receiving the bulk of on-screen time and critics’ consideration off screen. Nevertheless, each principle player in the highly talented international ensemble gets to raise her or his voice at least once.
It is 108 degrees in Osage County on the day of Bev Weston’s (Sam Shepard) funeral, but that is nothing compared to the pressure-cooker dining room where his family is reunited for the requisite post-funeral dinner. No one keeps cool under the onslaught of family matron Violet. After an appetizer of criticizing the men around her table, who removed their suit coats in the heat, she proceeds to raucously dissect her daughters. “I’m just truth telling,” she defends herself against criticism, “Some people are antagonized by the truth.” Although billed as a dark comedy, director John Wells’ movie takes a sharp detour into drama, and scenes mined for dysfunctional family humor on stage do not bring forth the same gems on screen.
The dinner scene works particularly well as a centerpiece on stage. In a film adaptation that opens the story to the outdoors, however, the dinner scene seems a bit stagey, although the claustrophobic atmosphere provided by windows darkened with heavy draperies and the general rundown feel of the old homestead is appropriate for this dysfunctional family’s first get-together in years. Barbara and her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) bring their angry teenaged daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), who is on the precipice of making a bad decision regarding the fiancé (Dermot Mulroney) of her aunt, the forcibly cheerful Karen (Juliette Lewis). Middle sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has stayed close to home while her sisters escaped to out-of-state lives of their own.
One of the best scenes in the film brings together these sisters for a catch-up session, in which each is shocked by events in the others’ lives. Barbara’s impending divorce has been part of Violet’s dinnertime interrogation, but Ivy’s revelations about her personal life force her sisters to confront the reality that they really know very little about each other. Their heart-to-heart brings up an interesting question about family connections. Are they, as cynical Ivy claims, forged only because people share random collections of cells or, as Karen protests, is there a bond among sisters that can withstand emotional as well as geographical distance?
This roundtable discussion takes place out in the little screened building symbolically in sight of but separate from the house. The sisters meet there in the evening, when the darkness softens the harsh Oklahoma light and a few glasses of wine help soften the tone. Even so, Ivy effectively closes the scene by defiantly walking out, the screen door slamming behind her.
No sooner do her sisters join her than they see their mother sitting alone in the yard. The scene shifts to more revelations from an awkwardly contrite Violet, who casually tells stories about her own mother’s cruelty. The masterful Streep can make Violet understandable, if not likable, especially when she converses and reveals instead of accuses and blames.
The best among the DVD’s special feature of deleted scenes is an alternate version of the sisters’ discussion. In the deleted version, the family home is not the setting for continuous sibling dialogue that bleeds into Violet’s late-evening confession about her upbringing. Instead, the sisters’ afternoon conversation begins around a picnic table in town and is continued later that day in a racetrack’s grandstand.
Although broadening a play with outdoor scenes is a typical cinematic strategy—and the Oklahoma scenery is an impressively wide-skied and open-spaced backdrop—spreading the dialogue across hours and different settings around Pawhuska diminishes the intimacy and emotional potency evident in the final edit showing the sisters’ interaction on the evening of their father’s funeral. Such illustrations of the filmmaker’s process also highlight the talents of these fine actors, whose variations in line delivery and body language show just how important the director’s decisions become in the way that audiences ultimately perceive a character, or a film.
Because the story revolves around Violet in the aftermath of her husband’s death, the camera focuses most often on her and her relationships with other women in the family. McGregor or Mulroney has a few scenes that clarify his character’s personality, but these actors are not asked to do much. Chris Cooper, however, stands out, making the most of mild-mannered Charlie Aiken’s outburst. Charlie is husband to vitriolic Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (played by the remarkable Margo Martindale, who excels both in being excessively boisterous around her sister as well as quietly concerned about a family secret).
As father of man-child Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), Charlie is a comforter and nurturer, and likely the reason his son psychologically survived to adulthood. When Mattie Fae belittles their son one time too many, Charlie’s seething anger controls the scene; because Cooper’s lowered voice punches each word, Charlie’s threat to leave Mattie Fae is believable and powerful. Among all these mothers and fathers, Charlie is the lone unselfish parent, demanding justice only for the son he loves.
Unlike mothers and daughters who fight for and against each other, or daughters who negotiate alliances with fathers alive or dead, Charlie and Little Charles share a clearly loving bond. If the meek do not inherit the family home, much less the Earth, at least they show they are capable of uncomplicated, unconditional love. Ironically, Ivy and Little Charles, the clan’s quietest members, are deemed unfit to have children. The “fittest” in this battle for survival take their cues from Violet, who wants to control everyone in her family. The number of camera shots following cars (and children) being driven away from the family home ironically attests to her desire to be the one who “is still here” after everything that happens, a survivor despite cancer, addiction, and deep anger.
Although the adaptation may struggle at times on screen, the cinematography and soundtrack are stunning. The landscape, seen mostly through car windows, is beautifully bleak; the original soundtrack often compliments the outdoor cinematography with a musical caress (in distinct contrast to Violet’s dance tune, the driving beat of “Lay Down Sally”).
One lovingly filmed shot lingers on the sunrise across the plains; then the camera then captures the golden light falling on Barbara’s face to awaken her. Guitar strings gently mimic the warmth of the morning sun, the antithesis of the harsh glare Barbara will face later in the day. She quietly disentangles herself from Bill to step outside, leaning against the upstairs balcony to survey the landscape that was so much a part of her upbringing.
In the On Writing with Tracy Letts DVD extra, the playwright/scriptwriter explains the importance of “the land we come from”. In scenes like this of the dawn’s stillness, audiences can understand the appeal of the Oklahoma landscape and the undercurrent of the past that will always connect members of this family.
A short scene between mother and daughter encapsulates the futility of their struggles to sever ties to each other or the land. On the way home from a confrontation between Barbara and the doctor who signs prescriptions for the many bottles of pills Violet pops, the Weston matriarch has had enough. Forcing Barbara to stop the car so she can be sick, Violet runs away across a field. Barbara follows, asking “Where the [expletive] are you going?” When Violet finally collapses, Barbara stretches out nearby, staring forlornly at the wide blue sky. “There’s no place to go,” she murmurs. In the battle for survival of the fittest, Violet and Barbara dominate the front lines, determined to be the last women standing.
When the war is over, however, where can they go?