“I’ll be sickly sweet”
I’m drawn to dysfunction—especially when it’s of the familial persuasion. It’s probably because I didn’t really get exposed to much as a kid growing up with a family most would give anything to have. When you see the looks others who know dysfunction’s definition like the back of their hands telling you that what you believed was an example from your past is laughably quaint to say the least, experiencing a bit of that fiery vitriol at the movies can be invigorating. And when you have affairs, incest, drug abuse, and the kind of cursing no family who makes sure to say grace before eating should possess in their vocabulary, well to me that’s shaping up to be a good time (that sounds wrong to say, I know). August: Osage County has it all and more.
I didn’t expect to enjoy John Wells‘ and Tracy Letts‘ cinematic adaptation of the latter’s own Pulitzer Prize-winning play as much as I found I did upon leaving the theater. I honestly only decided to check it out sooner rather than later because Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts received Oscar nominations for Actress and Supporting Actress respectively and I figured I should watch them before choosing my own list of 2013 bests. But it didn’t take long for me to settle in for the emotionally explosive Oklahoma plains-set reunion of three sisters and their crazy mother once patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) begins his narration to prospective live-in maid Johnna (Misty Upham) about his arrangement to let cancer-stricken wife Violet (Streep) abuse her pills as long as he was able to be drunk in the meantime.
There is stoicism to Shepard’s brief performance—his death is what brings the whole family together for the first time in years. You see the pain he carries, defeated he wasn’t able to help Vi with the horrible suffering of cancer more than the narcotics easily accomplished. He’s deflated as she slithers around the house with a cigarette in her mouth and a carefree attitude that only exacerbates her loquaciousness for the “truth” disseminated via a steady stream of sarcasm, judgment, and self-righteousness. So to see Johnna cope with the nightmare as well as the Westons’ youngest Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) who stayed close to home when the rest ran away becomes a heartbreaking reality of a gradually disintegrating kindness born from hate. At least Johnna gets paid although surely not close to enough.
What Letts shares through these tragic circumstances is a glimpse at how the Weston daughters molded themselves in spite of their mother’s image. Ivy chose to see past the bile and do what she could to help only to get pushed to the brink of emotional detachment by seeing the hoard as people with a common name and little else. Karen (Juliette Lewis) finds herself so desperate to not become their mom that she’s cultivated a faux air of shiny optimism barely hiding the realist underneath who’s silenced by material gains and social personas she knows are merely Band-Aids shielding her mind from accepting the truth of her isolation from genuine happiness. And Barbara (Roberts)—well she lost her battle for survival long ago, hating Violet so completely and yet becoming her just the same.
The rest of the clan is sadly resigned to the fact they’re a part of this circus for better or worse. Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) is fed-up and on the cusp of divorce while their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) is stuck not only in the world of an angst-filled teenager but also that of Weston maternal insanity. Karen’s womanizing fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney) has no idea what’s in store for him considering she’s probably kept a bubbly façade to mask the truth instead of delving into family darkness and her Aunt Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) does her best to diffuse things despite being almost as bad in a less obnoxious way as sister Vi. Just ask her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) and son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) about frustration to understand her brand of chaos.
They all try to be civil if only to honor the memory of Beverly without the hate that played a huge part in his demise. But such hopes are squashed as soon as dinner begins with on-edge guests pitted against a matriarch loaded on a cocktail of medication and ready to verbally assault anyone who provides an opening. No one’s immune from joining in when even kindly Charlie can’t help himself from mocking young Jean’s decision to be a vegetarian. However, nothing compares to Violet digging her claws in or Barbara asserting her own brand of domineering attitude to wrestle away control and attempt to diffuse things she’s willfully ignored for years through geographical distance. And the secrets everyone hides to not be the focal point of abuse? Well their untimely reveals inevitably end in tears.
Equal parts relatable, depressing, and entertaining depending on your own background, August: Osage County is a profane look behind the curtain of a plains family separated by their generational gaps’ disparate ideas of pain and hardship. The adults lived through pain so their kids wouldn’t and time has made them resent the favor. Streep and Roberts provide the spark to air dirty laundry and they earn the Academy’s decision to spotlight them ahead of the rest as a result, but their flash shouldn’t completely overshadow the subtlety of Cooper, Nicholson, or Martindale. And as far as the controversy about the ending goes, Letts says it always ended this way and I believe him since he wrote both. I may not be familiar with the original iteration but this one’s bittersweet finale is pitch perfect.
courtesy of The Weinstein Company