AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY Review

August: Osage County bring us into the dynamics of the dysfunctional Weston family as well as the countless issues, secrets, lies, and attitudes that constantly butt heads and leave everyone in a state of disarray and disappointment. There is much to be marveled at here as the cast is expansive and the acting is the real draw, but beyond the performances and familiar names this was first a stage play written by Tracy Letts (who also wrote Killer Joe which should give good indication as to how much bite this has) that no doubt won a Tony and the Pulitzer Prize due to its strong narrative and sharp dialogue. It is one of those films made for a very specific set of minds who find things such as this to be both entertaining and insightful. I find the psychology of what it means to each person to lead a successful life fascinating and to see a family, a group of familiar but distant characters, come together over a tragedy and let the flood gates open when it comes to expressing each of their issues with one another (and not in a calm fashion, mind you) to be something of a real treat. That said, this isn't the film the trailers have somewhat attempted to make it out to be. There is some feel-good music, but it is more for storytelling purposes than that of creating a certain tone. There are comedic moments, some that we readily identify with, but overall this is a very dark picture that delves into the issues each family member literally and figuratively brings to the table. There is so much characterization, so much to be learned from the small visual and vocal indications each of the characters give one another yet the film never feels overstuffed or bloated. Director John Wells (The Company Men) coaxes the tangled web of plotlines nicely as Letts adapted his own play for the screen and no doubt worked closely with the director to better translate his story for the more personal format of film rather than the open, less claustrophobic setting of a stage play. In the end, August: Osage County may have one too many twists to render it as credible as it would like to be, but after really thinking about it I couldn't help but feel even this was more the presentation of these facts rather than the fact they actually happened. We are talking about full lifetimes here and all the mistakes and events that come with that. It is an intense look at putting perspective on things and one that flourishes due to those bringing it to life.

Violet (Meryl Streep), Bill (Ewan McGregor) and Barbara (Julia Roberts) are reunited yet don't feel so good.
Sam Shepard, who's had a nice year making small but memorable contributions to Mud and Out of the Furnace, opens this one up with his strong southern drawl. A pedigreed voice quoting T.S. Eliot about the length of life and from that dour moment on we are entrenched in the history of the Weston clan and all of the baggage that comes along with them. Shepard is Beverly, the family patriarch who freely admits he has a drinking problem, but that his wife Violet (Meryl Streep) has a touch of the cancer that has put her on a downward spiral with pills. She takes pills. A lot of pills. Beverly hires a kind, quiet Indian woman named Johna (Misty Upham) to cook, clean and take Violet into town for her treatments and then he disappears. This event, while cause for alarm, brings both the last of Violet's daughters, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), to leave the home front over to her house as well as her sister Mattie Fae (the wonderful Margot Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) showing up for support though it doesn't really turn into an event until Barbara (Julia Roberts), the apparent favorite child, comes back to the plains of Oklahoma from Colorado with her daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), who she is currently separated from though that line seems more unclear than ever. Shortly after Barbara arrives they learn that Beverly has drowned himself and while the toll of his death is left looming over the family, it is clear it is not only a time for mourning, but a period in which they also feel free to get what many of them have been holding in for so long off of their chests. We meet Beverly and Violet's third daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis) who has clearly always been on the outside looking in and allows the fantasy of family to override the actual state of relations with those she is kin to. She brings her fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney) who gives off a slightly creepy vibe from the first moment we see his car and hear his tastes in music but perfectly suits the type of lifestyle we expect Karen to lead. Steve is the odd man out who tries too hard to incorporate himself and while it has the ability to induce cringes Mulroney does a fine job with it. There is also the issue of Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), the only son of Mattie Fae and Charlie, who is the latest into the fold and whose mentality seems the subject of much speculation by the rest of his family.              

The pure and simple drama of a family unit is enough to construct an entertaining piece of cinema around for a couple of hours, but to really cut to the core of a family and the specifics that cater to the clan presented and even further, to unearth the past and how it has defined the now and the what will be is something entirely different. This is where the performances of August: Osage County really help to define what is exceptional about the film and the story it's telling. As Violet, this matriarch who has essentially given up and allowed her sickness to infect not only her body but her sanity is brought to life with a Streep performance that is as calculated as it feels off the cuff. It is clear Streep puts a large amount of thought into her performances and what she needs to play towards to better help the audience understand the real-life motivations of a character we are just catching up with as she nears the end of her life and why she has become the way she now perpetrates herself to be. In many ways, the figure of Violet is as much a front to live up to as it is the person others want or expect her to be. We see in the small moments, when the room is more empty than full and she is in the company of the one daughter she feels truly understands the meanings of their now pointless lives and the bigger ideas they once strove for that reality has brought crashing down around her. That is Barbara and Roberts, in one of the best performances of her career, brings the vitality needed to go toe to toe with Streep while projecting a character who is simply tired of dealing with her own life. The first time we meet Barbara she is woken from what looks to be an afternoon nap by Jean who is asking her to answer a phone call. She assumes it is Bill which she dismisses without thought, but with choice words. When it turns out to be Ivy she immediately picks up the phone but only to ask, "What's wrong?" There is a solemn sense of dread over the family that Roberts plays up as soon as she and her family pull into town, but it is the extended scene at the center of the film where the entirety of the principal cast eats dinner after the funeral that is the real show stopper for the two leading ladies. The way in which Wells camera focuses on the faces that aren't always the ones speaking, garnering reactions, helping the audience to gauge how they feel about one another is expertly done in that we don't notice it, but we understand what we're seeing because we are thinking the same things. The reactions we get are the ones that offer us, the audience, a seat at the table.

Violet stares down her prey as her daughters Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) pray for peace.
The remainder of the performances are extremely visceral but bring the intelligence necessary for us to take their pain and secrets with credibility. Namely those of Julianne Nichols and Martindale's show us how deep the ties that bind have cut into their satisfaction with their time on this earth. Nichols plays into the sweet innocence of Ivy superbly by not allowing the regret to consume her, but rather have her looking ahead and feeling better than any of her siblings about what she's done with her life to this point and where it might be going. That isn't to say it all ends well for Ivy, but at least she seems to have a more stable head on her shoulders than both of her sisters. Martindale gets the biggest laughs throughout, but her strength comes when she is asked to play the melodramatic moments and she does them to as good an effect as Streep does in her showy scenes. Each of them have their own issues that don't just revolve around this moment in time that we get to know them, but that date back for generations and it is the depth and vastness of the relationship between Martindale and Streep's characters that proves the most haunting. The underrated Juliette Lewis is underused here though while Cumberbatch puts in just the right amount of time to make his appearance effective and his role in the family understood while not overshadowing the other performances. The same could be said for McGregor while the real male presence that steals the show is that of veteran Cooper. He is the only sane, well-tempered person in the house and the role in which we hope we would take on were we a part of this family; he is our surrogate. Each of them though, along with their overpowering female-counterparts, deliver an actors showcase worthy of seeking out for their performances alone.

This is ultimately Violet's story though and Violet is someone who sits at the end of her life and believes she knows better than everyone else around her. Not necessarily because she dislikes them, but simply because she has the most experience. Any time someone argues with her she pulls out an example of how she had it worse than anything they could imagine and puts on full display why she is the one who should be looked to as the head of the family, as the intelligent and thoughtful woman she's no doubt imagined herself to be at this point in her life. Instead, she has turned into old age alone with the family she raised gone and no grandkids to run around the house or celebrate holidays with. There is a lot of resentment towards her daughters due to the fact they didn't turn out to lead the lives she imagined for them as they were growing up. Her life has become an emptiness that no one cares about until something like this happens and then everyone shows up for a few days until the storm passes and then returns to life as usual. She knows the drill, she even says this flat out to Barbara at one point, but it makes little difference because despite how Violet would like to think of herself she knows she has turned into the mean, hateful woman she talks of her own mother being and she is scared she sees that in Barbara too. She finds it difficult not to act that way given the self-righteousness that all those around her seem to possess. This resentment, this guilt, this disappointment-all of it comes crashing down in the span of these few days in which we become acquainted with the Weston's and it is both tremendously entertaining yet viciously depressing to see unfold. That this story is something so ingrained into the American psyche, something so behind the curtain we're scared to admit we can relate that it is also as engaging as any movie star that shows up lending August: Osage County a quality similar to that of a train wreck you can't look away from.