Tuesday 21 January 2014

Movie Review: August: Osage County (2013)

The convoluted tribulations of the ultimate dysfunctional family, August: Osage County is a melodrama of social wreckage enhanced by stellar acting performances.

During a long hot summer in Oklahoma, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), a professor, poet and alcoholic, finally walks away from his long-time wife Violet (Meryl Streep), an overbearing woman addicted to prescription drugs. Beverly's disappearance, soon confirmed as a suicide, causes a family crisis, and Violet's family members converge at her large house for the funeral and to pick up the pieces.

Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) arrive first, followed by Violet's daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who also lives in Oklahoma. Arriving from out of town are Violet's daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and 14 year old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). A third daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives with flamboyant fiancĂ© Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Last to arrive by bus is "Little" Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), the grown son of Mattie Fae and Charles.

Zonked out on her drugs, Violet sets about pouring salt in all the open wounds of her family. Barbara and Bill are on the verge of a divorce, and the brooding Jean is already using marijuana. Ivy is unmarried and resents being the only daughter left behind to look after her mother. Karen is self-obsessed and has long since stopped caring about anyone other than herself. Meanwhile Steve, already twice divorced, immediately unleashes his slime on Jean. Little Charles lacks confidence and is still treated like an incompetent child by his mother. As Violet mercilessly pounces on every weakness that she sees, Barbara has to decide on what action to take to knock her mother back into a reasonable orbit.

Designed to make every other family appear normal, August: Osage County exhausts all possible miseries that one family can possibly endure. Prescription drug abuse, recreational drugs, generations of emotional abuse, alcohol dependency, suicide, separation, parental smothering and layers of guilt, and this is before the really juicy secrets are spilled in the final third.

The entire film is based on dialogue and confrontation, and Tracy Letts does well to adapt his play into a measured movie with ever more complex issues revealed in layers. Every character is damaged to various degrees, dealing with emotional losses and lost opportunities. And each one of Violet's relatives has a reason to lay blame on another family member for their perceived misfortune, resulting in an intricate web of recrimination and castigation.

Presented on a knife's edge between tense comedy and overwrought drama, the film maintains its balance thanks to a superb cast. Meryl Streep is given the freedom of the open Oklahoma plains to let loose, and she does deliver a memorable performance as Violet, a woman long past caring about what others think about her outrageous opinions. With Violet's social senses dulled by years of prescription drug abuse and a battle with cancer, Streep has the excuse to go over the top, and she does so in a showcase of emotional overload backed-up by a victim card. With Streep on the screen, which is often, the film crackles with the intensity of a woman who thrives on domination because she has nothing else to fall back on.

Julia Roberts is more restrained, her performance in many ways more intense and loaded with realism. Barbara is in the classical generational sandwich, her marriage falling apart as she is squeezed between her unbearable mother and a rebellious daughter. Roberts conveys the struggles of a woman quietly terrified of following in the footsteps of her mother, Barbara livid at Violet's dependencies and insensitivities mostly because they represent potential signposts in her own life.

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, director John Wells doing well to gradually introduce the many family members as they gather at Violet's house, each character getting a few dedicated minutes of relative normalcy to establish a presence before the secrets start oozing.

For all the humour generated by adults mistreating each other, the film does singularly focus on the prevailing bleakness. Letts and Wells allow their characters very few opportunities to genuinely laugh and live, the obsession with anguish coming at the expense of exploring more realistic lives. In August: Osage County, if it isn't dispiriting, it isn't happening, but all the snaky negativity is undoubtedly engrossing.

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