AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman (Meryl Streep) who raised them.
Review by Louise Keller:
Savage vitriol is the emotional language of Tracy Letts' biting adaptation of his award winning play in which family secrets, pent-up resentments and discordant relationships explode in an onslaught of conflict. It's August and it's hot in Osage Country, Oklahoma, where prompted by a tragedy, the family congregates. Like the cancerous burning mouth of the family's matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), the temperature is symbolic for the too-hot-to-handle relationships in this disparate and complicated family.
Drug and alcohol addiction, infidelity, incest and a never-ending coil of recriminations are the triggers for the searing dialogue which never fails to arrest and shock to the point that we feel as though we are eavesdropping in what feels more like a battlefield than a family home. It occurred to me after a while that through the eyes of a voyeur, like sex, the relentless, poisonous nature of the discourse is not especially conducive to entertainment. Wry, black humour also figures but above all, it is the hand-picked star cast with its hard-hitting performances that provides the film's main appeal.
The film's prologue in which we meet Violet (Streep) and Beverly (Sam Shepard), provides a sharp snapshot of their disturbing lives and relationship. The first voice we hear is that of Beverly, the resigned alcoholic, who quotes TS Elliott, bemoaning that 'Life is very long'. We are not kept waiting long to get a pretty good idea why he drinks. Violet's entrance is both theatrical and shocking, as she stumbles down the stairs in a drug-induced state, skin pasty and pale, her thinning hair cropped unflatteringly short. Streep attacks the role like a menacing bull terrier to its prey and is formidable. She is loud, crude and vulgar. Violet calls her verbal assaults 'truth telling'. Her prey is her family, and as its on-edge members arrive from different directions, the spewing of the ugly loathing begins.
As the favourite daughter Barbara, who is becoming the mirror image of her bitter mother, Julia Roberts lets fly as she tackles her disintegrated marriage to Bill (Ewan McGregor, with wavering accent), her dysfunctional relationship to rebellious daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and contempt for her two younger sisters (Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis). She is mighty good. It is Lewis who has the line 'Life puts us all in the corner'; the veracity of this observation rings true. The lunch scene in which catfish, the ocean's bottom feeders is served and in which accusations are hurled for the kill and plates smashed is both disturbing and affecting.
Nicholson excels in the contained role of Ivy, who has to scheme for a chance at happiness, while Lewis artfully displays Karen's lack of smarts and poor judgment in her choice of men (Dermot Mulroney, effective). Chris Cooper makes his mark as a decent man; the scene in which he puts his overbearing wife of 38 years Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale, excellent) in place as he defends their apologetic son (Benedict Cumberbatch) is one of the film's best.
After all the revelations, screaming and pummeling, I was disappointed that there wasn't a bigger emotional punch. I was exhausted. The performances however, are superb.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
August: Osage County is a mouthful of a title, but then the film is an emotional blockbuster in which characters are assassinated, homes destroyed and (personal) demons run rampant, breathing fire. Of course, in the wrong hands, the material would be rather soapy and the lather would be all we saw. But just as Pedro Almodovar or Susanne Bier manage to wrangle the collision of family history with family histrionics and secrets to powerful effect, John Wells has managed to do from Tracy Letts adaptation of his (yes, his) own play.
Reminiscent of Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011) in its general concept of a series of escalating crises and their impact on the characters but not as blackly funny, the film is orchestrated with great precision. That's not what swirls through our mind as we watch the Weston family version of a disaster movie: we are riveted by the performances. To be more accurate, we are riveted by the characters.
Meryl Streep transforms into Violent Weston .... ooops, I mean Violet, in all her various personas, from drug-addled old bag to cancer victim to mother-from-hell to matriarch without a speed limit. Her physical presence varies accordingly, giving us a masterclass in character formation ... or deformation, if you like. Our first sight of her is shocking, but then her behaviour catches up.
Her three daughters are astonishingly well formed by Julia Roberts (as Barbara), Julianne Nicholson (as Ivy) and Juliette Lewis (as Karen). Each unique, each at a crossroad of their lives, each handling it differently - but all of them bound to Violet in the eternal motherly embrace, which can get more like a bruising bear hug.
Margo Martindale strides into the family home as oversized Aunt Mattie, wife of Charlie (Chris Cooper) whose brother Beverly (Sam Shepard) has triggered this unexpected reunion, back in Osage County in the flatlands of Oklahoma (not far from Letts' birthplace), Tulsa. Martindale gives a ripper performance and delivers one of the film's secret bombshells to perfection. As for Cooper and Shepard, both men are giants of the acting profession and here is one good example why. Cooper makes us laugh one minute, weep the next.
Smaller support roles are equally wonderfully delivered, from smarmy, Ferrari driving Dermot Mulroney as Karen's latest fiancé to Ewan McGregor as Barbara's (separated) husband and Abigail Breslin as their 14 year old daughter.
Family conflicts teased out under stressed reunions is hardly an original concept, and that's because if you want to study the human condition under the microscope, that's one helluva good way to do so. Grab the microscope and settle down for journey made entirely of speed bumps.
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AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (M)
CAST: Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julia Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, Misty Upham
PRODUCER: George Clooney, Jean Doumanian, Grant Heslov, Steve Traxler, Harvey Weinstein
DIRECTOR: John Wells
SCRIPT: Tracy Letts (play by Letts)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Adriano Goldman
EDITOR: Stephen Mirrione
MUSIC: Gustavo Santaolalla
PRODUCTION DESIGN: David Gropman
RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 2, 2014