The dysfunctional family drama can pack it in now, because the genre has reached its zenith with John Wells’ spectacularly entertaining and unsettling August: Osage County. Adapted for the screen from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, Tracy Letts has effectively moved the traumas of the supremely effed up Weston family to the big screen, ensuring that droves of film-goers will be able to reason, well, at least I’m not part of that group just in time for an awards season the film will surely clean up during. Starring a tremendously talented cast, the film hinges on Meryl Streep as maddening matriarch Violet Weston and her control freak daughter Barbara (played by Julia Roberts in one of her finest performances), and the two do not disappoint in the slightest. Despite heavy subject matter (suicide, incest, drug abuse, alcoholism, infidelity, oh my!), the film still includes plenty of humor to keep it humming right along, fully engaging its audience all the way.
Set in – well, you know this – a steamy week or so in August in Oklahoma’s Osage County, the film opens with Weston family patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard) conducting an interview of the family’s new cook and aide Johnna (Misty Upham). Before the pair can finish the briefing of duties, the volatile Violet comes to after another night of pill-popping, only to stumble down into Beverly’s booze-filled office to offer color commentary and first class slurring. She’s a wreck, through and through, and it’s no surprise that Beverly finally feels the need to hire on someone to help run the household.
It’s also no surprise when Beverly goes missing and eventually turns up dead – after all, he had to get away from Violet somehow.
Beverly’s death soon draws the rest of the Weston family together – including daughters Barbara (Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis), along with Karen’s creepy fiancée Steve (Dermot Mulroney), Barbara’s daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), and the extended Aiken clan (Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, and Benedict Cumberbatch) – and the rest of August: Osage County centers on the slings and arrows (and sticks and stones and words) the family manages to lob at each other as they rattle around the big, broken house they call a home. No one gets out unscathed and there are plenty of secrets to go around.
If Violet Weston is anything, it’s unfiltered, and her taste for prescription drugs (downers, specifically) means that her panache for running her mouth (and ruining plenty with it) is on full display almost all the time. As eldest daughter Barbara, Roberts is brittle and sharp-eyed, and her steady spiral downward from measured outsider to destroyed daughter is something to watch and marvel at. The film is unabashedly a dance between Streep and Roberts, but its already high performance watermark is only elevated by a heartbreaking performance by Nicholson, a weirdly funny turn by Mulroney, and the revelation of an entirely new side of Cumberbatch (he’s about as from Khan as it gets here).
August: Osage County is quite clearly based on a stage work, and while Wells and Letts occasionally take their characters outside the confines of the country home, the best stuff happens inside its clapboard walls. The film reaches its peak during a post-funeral dinner scene that finally puts all of the production’s major characters in one room, at one time, and with plenty of simmering emotions and resentments to ensure a major blowout. Doped up on any number of her various medications, Violet pushes and prods each member of her family to breaking points before pulling back just enough to get the laughs flowing again – rinse, repeat, the cycle is nearly endless even as its ruthlessly entertaining. The entirety of August: Osage County could take place around that cursed dinner table, and it would still be one the most engaging and finely tuned films of its kind.
Crisp, cracking, and increasingly more bruising with each passing minute, August: Osage County is an actor’s movie about a distressing series of events that still manages to be accessible and amusing. An instant classic of its genre, August: Osage County will be enjoyed for years to come by people who like to gawk at both sterling performances and stirring family troubles.
The Upside: Another solid performance from Streep, a career best from Roberts, a beautifully open turn from Nicholson, cracking dialogue, unexpected humor, and one of the best dinner-set knock-down-drag-out family arguments ever put to screen.
The Downside: Gustavo Santaolallaa’s score is disappointingly bland, occasionally over-the-top, and an ending that should have its last three minutes hacked right off.
On the Side: Andrea Riseborough was originally cast as Karen.