The first time we see Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), she’s drugged out, with skin as pale as a ghost. Since getting diagnosed with mouth cancer and going through treatment, she’s gotten hooked on a variety of pills.
Her hair is short and thin like it’s about to fall out (as we later see, she usually wears a wig), and she stumbles down the stairs of her Oklahoma house, shouting and slurring.
She then barges into her husband Beverly’s (Sam Shepard) office, while he’s interviewing the future housekeeper Johnna (Misty Upham) and proceeds to embarrass herself and them.
So begins the fascinating madness that is director John Wells’ “August: Osage County,” a wildly entertaining and dour drama about a family in serious crisis.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who also wrote the screenplay), the action and the development of the characters in “August: Osage County” are driven forward by sharp, fiery dialogue Violet and the rest of her dysfunctional family viciously throw at one another.
Not long after that opening scene, Beverly walks out on Violet and commits suicide. This tragic event leads to an impromptu family reunion. There’s Beverly and Violet’s three daughters: Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis). Then there’s Violet’s sister, Mattie (a terrific Mattie Fae Akin), and her husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper). Also, there’s Barbara’s husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor); their adolescent daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin); Karen’s fiancée, Steve (Dermot Mulroney); and, finally, Charles and Mattie’s child, Charles Jr. (Benedict Cumberbatch, in a small but touching role).
Each family member comes to the reunion with deeply buried secrets or grudges against other family members — to say that the movie contains a lot of feuding and bickering would be a massive understatement. Just about every conversation eventually turns into a heated argument: Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes shocking, and revealing information is offered up to the group and then picked apart like an animal carcass.
While the structure of the film may appear disorganized, you can clearly see a method to the madness. Each argument starts off relatively calm, and then, gradually, as more bitter words are exchanged, the tension builds, until it finally snaps. No family member exits the scene mid-feud because of hurt feelings; in the Weston family, an argument is carried through until the bitter end.
Most of the arguments are instigated by Violet (not surprisingly), but it’s not as if the rest of the family are angels: The Weston family is a hurricane, with Violet as the eye. She criticizes, picks and provokes, and her bigotry doesn’t help the situation, either. When she isn’t outright scathing, she’s sad and pathetic.
At the same time, she comes off incredibly confident. Not worried about what other people say or think about her, she simply says what’s on her mind and always has a comeback to an insult lobbed at her.
Streep gives yet another masterful performance, and even if some of the time you detest Violet, you can’t keep your eyes off her.
It should be said that Roberts comes awfully close to equaling her. She’s also tough and confident, never afraid to say what she thinks about Violet or anyone else. Of the three daughters, she resembles her mother the most (Ivy is shy and not as confrontational, while Karen is a bit of a ditz) — not just by holding her ground with Violet but also by instigating some of the arguments and causing drama herself.
The rest of the actors all do their part in the support department, but “August: Osage County” belongs to Roberts and Streep, both delivering Oscar-worthy performances.
An honest portrayal
The constant arguing may get to be repetitive and exhausting for some, and others may find the movie to be too sad, but there’s also a raw, emotional honesty being shown on screen. The Weston family may be mean, but they’re honest with each other. They argue and argue because that’s the only way they know how to communicate with one another.
Thankfully, “August: Osage County” never sinks into sentimentality, and the resolution doesn’t wrap up neatly and easily, which won’t go over well with certain general-audience members. Even so, the movie never loses sight of itself: It proudly and loudly embraces its aggressive, turbulent ways.
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