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August: Osage County




Released: 24th January 2014

Directed By: John Wells

Starring: Julia Roberts, Meryl Street, Ewan Mcgregor

Certificate: 15

Reviewed By: Clayton Walker (@schmvngpctrs)

If the walls of the Weston house could talk, they would have many stories to tell, but it would hardly matter: they wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise over the constant bickering, screaming, and arguing that ringing through the halls. Dysfunctional families are rarely this dysfunctional, with a funereal reunion bringing with it incest, pedophilia, and infidelity. Spending a couple hours with this loud-mouthed brood is exhausting, even horrific, but the dark comedy (and strong performances) make it a worthwhile visit.

Adapted by Tracy Letts from his own play, and directed by John Wells (The Company Men), August: Osage County honors its theatrical roots in its claustrophobic setting, full of proscenium doorways. The house becomes a character of its own, with too few rooms to hold all the huge personalities and uncomfortable conflicts, which sometimes ooze out into the yard, or the gazebo in the backyard. Often, a quiet (or, more often, a very loud) conversation between two characters becomes a private play in its own right, with a third party discretely watching from another room. The audience, too, plays unwanted third party, watching the Weston brood air their dirty laundry from the usually desirable best-seat-in-the house that cinema provides, one of the advantages movie-goers have over theater-goers. With such deep, dark dysfunction, though, that seat loses some of its luster as the train wreck that cannot be looked away from gets more horrific with each passing moment.

It’s a strong use of setting (one foreshadowed by the film’s title), with the house representing the lone structure of any significance in the endless countryside: there is nowhere, yet everywhere, to go. It looks like a roomy sanctuary from outside, but within, it’s a hot, stuffy prison where all the inmates know each other far too well. With the close quarters and clash of big characters, it’s no wonder the film becomes a headache-inducing nightmare, appropriately (to some, at least) releasing on Christmas Day, as families come together and perhaps attempt to maintain a civil silence.

No attempts are made by the Westons, a family of monsters, manipulators, liars, and sneaks. Meryl Streep plays pill-popping, motor-mouthed matriarch Violet, speaking in a pitched squeal and sauntering about with a boozy bravura of the type only Streep can pull off. Physically, it’s one of the actress’s most stripped-down roles, showing more warts than many of her characters allow. But Streep chews through every scene, hurling insults with an acidic bite that really gets under the skin, each word drawing blood. This is powerhouse acting at its most ostentatious.

She is only upstaged by Julia Roberts, playing daughter Barbara, who is determined to become a different sort of woman and mother than Violet, though she already sees the monstrous tendencies blooming in her own character, and in the way she interacts with her husband (Ewan McGregor) and daughter (Abigail Breslin). Roberts shows far more restraint than Streep, and thus the vicious outbursts pack all the more punch, cracking the barely-maintained facade Barbara dons in her family’s company. When they share the screen (which is often), Roberts and Streep are evenly matched, making for some of the most compelling scenes in the film.

Sadly, the huge supporting cast doesn’t get much opportunity to shine. Julianne Nicholson and Margo Martindale both stand out, but neither gets enough screen time to flesh their characters out as much as Streep and Roberts. Worst, still, are the throwaway clingers like Dermot Mulroney’s Steve Huberbrecht, who brings a unique perspective as the newcomer to the clan, but feels more like a plot device than an actual character. One (who hasn’t seen/read the play) wonders how much material was cut out to make the film’s runtime manageable, and if that’s why some of the characters come off as half-persons.

The film opens with patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) quoting T.S. Eliot: “Life is very long.” The words certainly ring true in August: Osage County; a matter of days are very long among these folk. But more interesting is Beverly’s commentary on the phrase, noting that it was surely spoken before Eliot laid claim to it, but because he took ownership, one can’t utter it without giving credit where it’s due. Words carry power, mostly because of who says them. The Westons understand this truth, and use it to detrimental effect as they attack each other and tear each other down in the quest for dominance in a crowded, fragile family. It’s not a pleasant thing to watch, but it is riveting, and it (hopefully) makes one thankful for the (hopefully) milder dysfunction in one’s own family.

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