It is one of life’s cruel ironies that the ties that bind can also become the ones to tear us apart. The chief problem with John Wells’ August: Osage County (2013) is that it has been mis-marketed as a ‘black comedy’ instead of astutely being critiqued for what it actually is; a darkly unsympathetic, unvarnished glimpse into playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts’ idea of the traditional Southern family gone to seed: the Westons - one of the most dysfunctional bloodlines ever to walk God’s green earth. The Westons are a sort of American Gothic meets Tennessee Williams, with a dash of Jerry Springer on the side. There’s virtually no soft center to this hard-candied treat; riveted together by some powerhouse performances and a spectacular ensemble cast.
August: Osage County plays out like some hallucinogenic and Freudian demagoguery with a Southern twang. But I think it exceptionally tragic and grossly unfair most critics have chosen to attack the film as just another “star-studded loopy melodrama: brash, foul-mouthed, self-consciously offensive, intermittently insightful (but with) a gaping hole where its heart should be.” August: Osage County is about real people at war with one another; a lifelong conflict whose casualties continue to mount, the bittersweet betrayals only amplified with the passage of time. The film is intensely scripted, and even more penetratingly acted by its stellar roster of A-list stars.
Based on Lett’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, August: Osage County isn’t a waste of time: although, arguably, it isn’t the movie everyone expected to see – certainly not the one I was gearing up for on a Tuesday night. But I have a news flash for anyone who thinks this movie is peppered in “implausible plot twists and overcooked dialogue”. August: Osage County is closer to the truth for more kinfolks than you think. This may be the saddest indictment yet on the status of the American family at large; but it does speak clearly enough, undeniably resonating with unvarnished realities that continue to afflict, confine and brutalize the human condition.
There is nothing remotely funny, much less endearing about Meryl Streep’s Violet Weston; a pill-popping, razorback gargoyle intent on depriving her children of every last shred of dignity and their chance at happiness, just so they can all occupy the same soulless and emotional vacant purgatory together. Violet is the matriarch from hell; willful, self-destructing and corrosive to the sanity of her extended family. So, she’s suffering from cancer. So what? Her divisive barbs have grown multiple tumors on the hearts and minds of the Weston clan; time-released with the cruelest of intentions to maximize their negative impact. Violet revels in these merciless attacks (referring to them as truths), enjoying the view as her three daughters come to blows and to grips with the most mesmerizingly awful family secrets.
These generational nuggets have been allowed to fester for quite some time. They’ve already ruined eldest daughter, Barbara Weston-Fordham (Julia Roberts) marriage to Bill (Ewan McGregor); a somewhat priggish professor, whose semantics pale to the emasculating vitriol brutally inflicted on him by his own wife. The two share a daughter – Jean (Abigail Breslin); a wounded, pot-smoking adolescent, already well on her way to creating her own victimization. What’s wrong with this family?
Plenty: from Aunt Mattie Fae Aiken’s (Margo Martindale) wilful vindictiveness toward her son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), to middle daughter, Karen’s (Juliette Lewis) self-medicating naiveté, choosing to throw herself at the head of any middle-aged man with a flashy sports car who treats her like poor white trash (her current lover, three-time divorcee/loser, Steve Huberbrecht (Dermot Mulroney) has a predilection for very young girls – and his eye presently on Jean) to youngest daughter, Ivy’s self-inflicted martyrdom, already begun to erode her sense of purpose into brittle resolve (think Violet: Part Four), the Weston clan are about to face their greatest challenge yet – forcibly brought together, though ultimately internalizing things apart from the fray and pandemonium, with only their own steel-trapped minds and fervid rage as their emotionally scarred chainmail of self-defense. Hate is the most powerful weapon and/or coping mechanism in their arsenal of hard knocks. Contempt fills in the gaps where even the most basic tolerance ought to reside.
August: Osage County takes time to hit its stride. I confess; the opening scene where patriarch, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is interviewing Native American, Johnna Monevata (Misty Upham) for a position as the family’s cook and housekeeper – rudely interrupted by an obviously high and frightfully gaunt Meryl Streep, spewing racial slurs and cackling like Margaret Hamilton’s wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz (1939) – had me thinking I’d made the wrong decision to blind-purchase this movie. And fair enough, what played as three hours of riveting tragi-comedy stagecraft has been somewhat distilled into just under two hours of contemptuous revelations, never entirely reaching their Shakespearean plateau. But August: Osage County does delve into some fairly weighty material – occasionally through humor; though even most of it is more scathingly sarcastic than laugh-out-loud funny.
Beverly’s suicide – the pivotal moment of escape for this beleaguered/belittled shell of a man – draws all of the narrative threads in the Westons’ familial tapestry into a very tight and constricting knot, destined to unravel. Violet has been dangling the specter of her cancer over the family for far too long. Pity the poor sufferer, she says. But is it really sympathy Violet’s after – or merely another tool used to manipulate, malign and drag her children through the mud; shaking them free from their last vestiges of humane empathy. Violet’s a bitter woman, somehow unable to identify her own grotesque complicity in the dismantling of her family, even as she continues to see herself as the only injured party.
Barb’s had enough, and why not? Children should never be exposed to adult stupidity. But Barb has had a front row seat to this train wreck for more years than she would care to remember. It’s ruined her chances for a life apart from the fold. Bill is desperately running out of reasons to stay married to her. She holds his fleeting indiscretion with a young girl over his head like an anvil; blaming his complacency in their marriage for Jean’s pot smoking, while making demands he assume a more proactive role as her father.
On the other end of the spectrum is Mattie’s cuckolded husband, Charles (Chris Cooper); unable to fathom his wife’s vial disdain of Little Charles, who is actually not his son (although Charles does not know this), but the result of an affair Mattie had with Beverly many years ago. Violet knows this dirty little secret; a revelation soon to wreak havoc on Ivy’s plans to run away with Little Charles; the two having begun a secret love affair, believing they are first cousins – not brother and sister. After the funeral, Violet becomes belligerent once again; challenging her children’s bitterness on the pretext they know absolutely nothing about real suffrage.
Recognizing that her mother is heavily under the influence of prescription drugs - and absolutely refusing to have this proverbial ‘pot calling the kettle black’ anymore - Barb wrestles Violet to the carpet as the family looks on with stultifying disbelief, forcible removing the bottle of tranquilizers from her hand and declaring herself in charge. A short while later, Barb, Karen and Ivy raid the house, discovering multiple vials of prescription medications their mother has been chronically abusing. Barb flushes their contents down the toilet (not very environmentally friendly), before confronting the family’s physician, Dr. Burke (Newell Alexander) with the prospect of a lawsuit if he ever deigns to write another scrip’ for Violet again.
But ‘clean and sober’ will be neither as ‘clean’, nor as ‘sobering’ as anyone anticipates. After all, Violet plays dirty and clearing her mind of its drug-induced haze only makes her more vicious. Retiring to the nearby screen-covered gazebo, Barb, Karen and Ivy briefly contemplate putting their mother in a home – possibly even a mental hospital. Their discussion breaks up when the sisters quickly realize how far they have grown apart. Ivy confesses she is in love with Little Charles. She also admits to having a hysterectomy after a bout of cervical cancer the previous year. Barb is appalled Ivy never told anyone until now. But Ivy points out that Barb has hardly been a devoted sibling. She also tells Karen and Barb that when the summer is over – and ‘come what may’ - she intends to leave Violet to her own devices.
In the meantime, Johnna spies Steve attempting a moonlit seduction of Jean after getting her high on some of his private stash of marijuana. Instead, Johnna attacks him with a shovel from the front porch; wounding Steve in the arm, but exposing his truer intentions to the family. Barb would prefer to claw his eyes out. And Bill’s admonishment of Jean’s burgeoning sexuality (she’s only 14, remember?) is met with a snide comment by Jean; that like Steve, dad prefers them rather young. Karen and Steve elect to leave immediately. But Karen – despite her faux naiveté – is no fool. She knows she’s picked another dog with flees as her ever-lovin’ man, but leaves with Steve back to New York anyway.
The onus for looking after ma’ now rests with Barb; especially after Bill announces he has finally decided to file for divorce, taking Jean with him. The last to be destroyed is arguably the most innocent of the lot: Ivy suddenly discovering Little Charles is her brother – not her first cousin – thus, shattering her stored up dreams for their life together, but not enough to dissuade her from leaving Osage County and Mommie Dearest; presumably, forever. Left to her own accord, and deprived of the necessary audience to inflict her reoccurring miseries, Violet slips back into temporary madness; comforted by Johnna as Barb drives away for parts unknown – her own future equally uncertain and arguably, overcast.
August: Osage County is fairly downbeat and depressing. This isn’t a movie to enjoy as pure entertainment, but rather one to be heeded as a cautionary tale. The Westons are D-grade human beings, expertly played by A-list talent, each orbiting a sort of utterly tragic and undeniably, heart-breaking - if incurable - cruelty toward one another. It’s high time we realized some situations cannot be fixed: some people too. Violet Weston is a lost cause; destructive to her own wellbeing as well as others. She loves to hate. Arguably, hate has kept her alive these many years. But it’s also kept her isolated and apart from the people who might otherwise have come to her aid in this hour of need. Does Violet need anyone? Debatable. Certainly, she doesn’t seem to think so.
Meryl Streep gives a disturbingly original and unapologetic performance as this filthy harridan. Violet Weston should never have raised kids – just cobras. Her offspring are both the benefactresses and the casualties of her despicable tutelage. Julia Roberts is the other heavy-hitter in the cast; long ago having transgressed against her ‘Pretty Woman’ image and wildly veering left of this side of Erin Brokovich for this outing. Roberts can definitely hold her own with Streep; a different kind of maturity emerging from under the seething venom and salty tears. Juliette Lewis is the dark horse, running a very close third in her scene-stealing moments. The men who populate the story really are the weaker bunch; particularly Benedict Cumberbatch – all but wasted in the role of the ineffectual son, enfeebled by his own mother’s abject humiliations. In the final analysis, August: Osage County is a compelling character study about people we would rather not know, or, perhaps, even acknowledge as existing. It hits hard and doesn’t play fair – either with the characters’ emotions or the audience’s for that matter. But it is potent – in spots – and revealing in ways that suggest more investigation is needed to truly appreciate all of the subtext going on behind these very angry words.
E-One’s 1080p transfer is consistently film-like but suffers from infrequently soft image quality with only light grain apparent throughout. Has undue DNR been liberally applied? Hmmmm. Adriano Goldman’s low lit, naturalistic cinematography looks marvelous, particularly sequences photographed in daylight and bathed in a light bronze hue with occasional splashes of color – like Steve’s flaming red sports car. Still, the overall palette isn’t quite as bold as one might expect, favoring greens, burnt yellows and very orange sunsets. Flesh tones look accurate, but occasionally suffer from jaundice pallor in the lower lit indoor scenes. Contrast is quite solid with velvety deep blacks and fine detail popping as it should – except in the aforementioned softer sequences.
The DTS-HD 5.1 audio is fairly aggressive. August: Osage County is primarily a dialogue-driven movie, but the overall sound field is incredibly nuanced and robust; Gustavo Santaolalla’s underscore and pop tunes featuring Kings of Leon, Eric Clapton and John Fullbright among others. Extras are nicely put together, including a making of featurette that is more comprehensive than most and an informative audio commentary featuring director John Wells. Good stuff for only a so-so movie with some solid performances to boot. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)