August: Osage County

January 6, 2014
Meryl Streep in 'August: Osage County' 2013
Meryl Streep in 'August: Osage County' 2013

A Hobbit movie gives little scope for method acting but August: Osage County offers the kind of roles that set actors salivating. Tracy Letts’s play won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was brought to Australia by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago in 2010. The year before had seen a production by the Melbourne Theatre Company, so the film should find many viewers already primed.

John Wells has given us a rip-roaring, claustrophobic psycho-drama in the style of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), or almost anything based on a Tennessee Williams play. The destructive force is Violet, the matriarch of the dysfunctional Weston family of Oklahoma. Undergoing treatment for cancer of the mouth, Violet has become addicted to pills. This loosens her self-control, which seems to have been rather tenuous in the first place. In scene after scene she attacks family members with malice and shrewd intelligence.

Every year there is at least one role for which Meryl Streep gets an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and her performance as Violet Weston is straight out of the top drawer.

The family are gathered together for this ordeal because Violet’s husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), has disappeared. We meet him only briefly – a drunken, disillusioned poet who looks back on his life with black humour. By the time the rest of the clan has assembled, he is out of the picture.

The three Weston sisters – Barbara, Ivy and Karen – each have their private catastrophes. Barbara (Julia Roberts) has travelled to the family home with her husband, Bill (Ewen McGregor), who has already left her for a young woman; and their surly daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has remained at home, trying to cope with the parents while her own happiness slips away. Karen (Juliette Lewis), has always had apalling taste in men, but believes her new fiancé and chaperone, Steve, (Dermot Mulroney) is the one.

Throw in Violet’s abrasive sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her avuncular husband, Charles (Chris Cooper), and their timid son, ‘Little’ Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), and you have the makings of a domestic bloodbath. Almost everybody has a dark secret or two. The plot is so steeped in fear, hatred, self-loathing, sexual tension, incest, adultery, and similar qualities, that it constantly threatens to descend into comic melodrama. If it doesn’t we may thank the quality of the acting, and the hothouse atmosphere generated by the constant friction between personalities.

There are various levels of naivetie on display, but no real innocents, with the exception of the native American housekeeper, Johnna (Misty Upham), who watches in wide-eyed stupefaction as the family tears itself apart.

It doesn’t require Violet’s evil eye to see that Karen is a fool, while her boyfriend Steve is a textbook sleazebag with his eye on 14-year-old Jean. The tension between Barbara and Bill is almost palpable, as they keep replaying the breakdown of their marriage. Ivy and Little Charles are searching for a way out of the provincial black hole that has already absorbed their best years; while Mattie Fae’s bluster and Charles’s good humour are shields against a few unpalatable truths.

Everyone is playing a role apart from Violet, who ferrets out every lie and insecurity, like a surgeon with a blunt scalpel. When she sits down at the head of the dinner table we think: “Uh-oh, here it comes!” Violet’s only serious opposition comes from Barbara, who has inherited her mother’s stubbornness and possibly some of her meanness. By the end she is forced to confront these aspects of her own personality, and choose a path.

It’s an excellent performance from Julia Roberts, who is probably better suited to dramatic roles than the comedies and romances that have dominated her career.

To say that August: Osage County is overblown is to state the obvious. If we ask why it still holds our attention and keeps derision at bay, it may be because it taps into the same tensions that run, in different forms, through all families. Although few of us will have experienced anything over Christmas to match the Westons, there will be many moments that strike a chord of recognition. One thinks of Tolstoy’s opening lines in Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This film takes that unhappiness to an extremity. It’s a place we may not have visited, but we know where to find it on the map.

August: Osage County
USA, rated MA 15+
121 mins
Directed by John Wells; written by Tracy Letts; starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 4 January, 2014.