Family can be messy, but when a sourly dysfunctional family with such a venomous matriarch, such deep-rooted conflicts and tumultuous secrets come together under the one roof, we can expect it to implode in spectacular fashion. In the scalding, emotionally charged August: Osage County, directed by John Wells and adapted for the screen by Tracy Letts (Killer Joe) from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, a brilliant ensemble cast trade verbal blows in the rural Midwest. Darkly hilarious and brimming with intensity, this complex family drama perhaps overstays its welcome and lathers on too many skeletons, but has a deeply affecting resonance thanks to the extraordinary work of Meryl Streep and co, and one firecracker of a screenplay.
The film's opening sequence introduces us to Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), a renowned poet with a drinking problem, and his wife Violet (Streep). Violet suffers from mouth cancer and has been left with signs of aggressive chemo treatment. She has also developed an addiction to prescription drugs, and with Beverly no longer willing or able to take care of her, he has hired a caregiver.
A few weeks later Violet's daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) receives a call from her sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson). Violet - wearyingly negative, consistently intoxicated, and spewing hateful insults - is distraught by the sudden disappearance of Beverly, which results in the entire family being called upon to search for him, only to find out that he has committed suicide. Barbara's husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), her sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) and fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney), along with Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), brother-in-law Charles (Chris Cooper) and nephew ‘Little’ Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) assemble at the Weston house following the funeral. From there tempers flare as long-term frustrations combust, secrets are uncovered, and a slew of grievances follow with nobody evading involvement. Violet comes to realise just how toxic her influence over her divergent family has been, and how the lives of her daughters have been forever affected as a result.
Dedicating commentary to every character in this film would take an eternity, but there are some fascinating individuals. The film's dinner centrepiece features all of the characters under the one roof, before eliminating cast members, until only a mother and her two daughters remain. Barbara and Bill have separated and his new younger partner has them primed for a divorce, Mattie Fae and Charles appear to have never been happy, and while Karen now seems ready to finally settle down Steve seems to be another loose cannon. Ivy keeps the identity of her partner a secret from her curious sisters...with good reason. This is the most dysfunctional family you would ever hope to encounter. Just when you thought the last reveal was the final straw, another one emerges. While each of these individual situations are believable on their own, it becomes a little difficult to accept their uniting under the one roof and that such poison has been dripped through the bloodline. But are all of these conflicts resolved? Of course not. And that's life.
Just as important as Violet's dark, claustrophobic dwelling are the sparse expanses of Midwest desert and the empty roads leading to the house. Even though the daughters desire nothing else but to be free from their mother's influence, escape isn't easy. With key sequences set on these interstates, and the exteriors of the house also cleverly incorporated into the story, Wells – through Adriano Goldman’s golden hued widescreen, and naturalistic close-ups - successfully brings this talky drama to a worthy cinematic level.
Streep's Violet is a horrid woman; physically fragile, she numbs her pain and escapes the reality of her callously selfish existence through her cocktail of pills. Via a tough upbringing herself, her daughters have grown distant and over the course of this timeline her cruel bullying extends to other visiting members of the family. She has no filter. She attacks even when she’s dishing out pitying anecdotes. Such a performance would have warranted extraordinary physicality, but she does at times go too big. Roberts, guilty of similar criticism, is excellent, too. Her Barbara is strong-willed, but she's bitter and depressed and the most like her mother. Roberts takes it right at Streep in some screech-heavy sequences.
McGregor looked a little lost as he brought his usual class to a somewhat dull character, while Lewis' ditzy airhead is perhaps the most grounded with her own identity and what she desires out of life. Martindale brings welcome joviality early, but soon reveals some rotten traits, and constantly demeans her son. Cooper's Charlie is gentle and a suitably bemused observer of the family he married into, but there are powerful moments when he stands up for both Beverly, and his son. Cumberbatch perhaps overplays Little Charles' simpleness, while the pot smoking, sports car-driving Mulroney is absolutely hilarious. The tunes he plays in his car a perfect comedic addition. Shepard, in just a single sequence, tells blunt truths and reveals a weariness we come to fully understand as we too get pummelled by Violet's behaviour.
What a treat it is to see such a cast assembled on screen, and Letts' screenplay features astounding writing. Well-suited humour lends itself well to this big downer; a devastating study of how reflecting on the past reveals the roots of dysfunction moulded into the Westons. Streep will get all the recognition, but it is Cooper who provides the film’s truly unshakable moment.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.