Heading up an all-star cast in August: Osage County that could very well be dominating the entire upcoming awards season, Meryl Streep stars as the matriarch of a family hell-bent on imploding in the days following the death of husband and father Beverley (Sam Shepherd making the most of his very limited time on screen).
The film may be a truncated adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning play—its running time is about an hour shorter—but the move to the big screen only opens up the scope for a story that so viciously, and occasionally hilariously, looks at the mechanics of a crumbling family.
Sickly Violet (Streep) is addicted to pills and although her dependence on them is somewhat legitimized by her recent mouth cancer diagnosis, her behaviour while zonked out on the medication is enough to keep her middle-aged daughters from regularly visiting her in the family’s rambling old Oklahoma farmhouse.
Eldest Barbara (Julia Roberts) is called to return home from Colorado when Beverley goes missing and she does so grudgingly, dragging along her sombre 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), igniting yet another round of poisonous criticisms about her prolonged absence from Violet.
Middle sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is resentful because Barbara and bubbly youngest sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) have left her with the burden of dealing with their venomous shrew of a mother only to swoop in and take over when things get really bad. There’s also the little matter of her inappropriate relationship with her first cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) that’s threatening to surface.
It all begins to come to a head as the family gathers for the first time in years to share their grief and ultimately lay bare the raw feelings and corrosive bitterness that seems to be trickling down from Violet, who learned it from her own sadistic other.
It’s no surprise that the champ of this film is Streep. Her transformation into a drug-addled, explosive woman who always seems to be spoiling for a fight is truly something to behold. In her hands, Violet believably swings from ferocious when needling her kids into combative discussions, to caustically witty when discussing how women age, to beaten down and confused about the cruel realities of her troubled life. It would be an easy role for a less skilled actor to hammer into melodrama, but Streep keeps Violet grounded in reality.
For her part, Roberts mostly keeps up nicely with her on-screen mother, turning in a performance that initially feels a bit one-note in its acidity, but eventually transforms into a masterful depiction of a woman only just realizing how very alike she is to the parent she can’t stand to be around. That’s why it’s such a pity that her character’s story arc feels a bit incomplete – likely a casualty of the trimmed down adaptation from stage to screen.
It should also be noted that the trailer for August: Osage County that’s currently making the rounds is pretty misleading. This is not the tale of a family coming to terms with their differences in a witty and heart-warming way, but rather an explosive and emotionally violent film with an ear for the way that family members are especially adept at casually savaging one another. Director John Wells has created what some might describe as the “feel bad movie of the year” and you’ll very definitely leave the theatre either completely drained and ruminating on your own family’s shortcomings, or thankful that you’ve never had to endure a war of words quite as malevolent as those tossed around in the Weston house.
August: Osage County is a brutal, heart-wrenching and impressive film that only mildly suffers from its downsized running time.