Written by Guillermo Troncoso.
Screenwriter Tracy Letts adapts his own play with August: Osage County, an exhausting family drama that manages to rise above the stagey theatrics this sort of adaptation occasionally brings. The phenomenal cast ensures that this is not only a hard-hitting analysis of a family’s disintegration, but a fantastic showcase of master class acting.
We open with Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), a T.S. Elliot quoting family patriarch who introduces us to his dysfunctional marriage to Violet (Meryl Streep); he drinks, she pops pills. Beverly disappears and his body is soon found in a lake. His funeral serves as a family reunion of sorts, as the three daughters and their significant others return home. Violet’s emotional stranglehold on her family reaches fever pitch as past truths are revealed, relationships are tested and confrontations escalate.
Meryl Streep continues her winning-streak by smacking another one out of the park. Violet is an incredibly demanding character; for both the audience and her family, and no doubt for Streep as well. A cancer-stricken drug addict that manages to show love while spitting bile at the same time, Violet is an incredibly complex and fascinating matriarch. Streep not only embraces the woman’s physicality (her loss of hair an obvious effect of chemotherapy) but manages to bring her emotional juxtapositions to life in an admirable performance. She’s an infuriating, offensive mother, but there’s an undeniable sadness and desperation there that evokes a sort of empathy.
Julia Roberts gives one of her best performances as Barbara, the oldest daughter. Apart from dealing with her mother’s issues and uncovering some serious secrets, Barbara must also deal with her broken down marriage and a distant teenage daughter. Roberts brings a certain strength to her character’s controlling nature, providing Violet with a daughter who is as tough as she is scared. Her intense need to confront her mother’s behavior culminates in some powerful verbal shoot-outs.
Streep and Roberts may lead the pack, but August: Osage County boasts fantastic performances from a fantastic cast. Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor and Benedict Cumberbatch all bring layers to roles of various sizes, which are all nevertheless important.
Based on a play that ran more than three hours, the film inevitably has to cut out some of the play’s beloved material – but it still comes across as slightly over-packed. Juggling ten major characters, while driving home emotional punchlines scene after scene, does deter from the overall experience, but only by a little. It’s a complimentary type of qualm: the verbal wallops don’t let up, ensuring that, by the end of the film, you’re well and truly beaten. This isn’t to suggest that the film is devoid of humour, there’s a dry comedic element that runs throughout, providing slight relief in much-needed moments.
Director John Wells (TV’s ER and 2010’s The Company Men) directs Letts’ screenplay with simple confidence. He and cinematographer Adriano Goldman (Jayne Eyre, The Company You Keep) keep the claustrophobia levels high, treating the house itself like an emotional coffin that is slowly being buried. Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel, Into the Wild) deserves a mention as well; his beautiful score complimenting the emotional beats perfectly.
August: Osage County succeeds as a dialogue-driven drama. The long dinner scene that closes the second act is an example of every element working together. It’s an unrelenting sequence of humour and scathing wordplay, driving almost every character’s arc forward in one of the year’s best scenes.
You don’t get films like this often. Impressive acting and a screenplay that offers rich dialogue and memorable characters. It’s unfortunate that Letts’ bleak melodramatic stylings teeter on the edge of exhaustion, but August: Osage County is a strong adult-drama that deserves to be seen.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10