A film review by Craig J. Koban January 17, 2014 


2013, R, 130 mins.


Meryl Streep as Violet Weston  /  Julia Roberts as Barbara Weston  /  Juliette Lewis as Karen Weston  /  Julianne Nicholson as Ivy Weston  /  Sam Shepard as Beverly Weston  /  Benedict Cumberbatch as 'Little' Charles Aiken  /  Ewan McGregor as Bill Fordham  /  Abigail Breslin as Jean Fordham  /  Chris Cooper as Charles Aiken  /  Margo Martindale as Mattie Fae Aiken  /  Dermot Mulroney as Steve  /  Misty Upham as Johnna

Directed by John Wells  /  Written by Tracy Letts

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY contains one of the most hellishly dysfunctional families that I’ve ever seen in a movie.  These people are not just cruel to one another; they hurl out frequent f-bomb riddled insults that would make the crooks in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET blush.  When they’re not doing that, they sometimes engage in fisticuffs.  AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a dark, cynical, and unsavory film to sit through, during which time toxically irritable and angry characters nearly tear each other to shreds (emotionally and physically).  Sitting through the film, as a result, will feel like a cringe-inducing endurance test of will.  Yet, there’s no denying the raw, unhinged power of the ensemble performances here by a group of Hollywood’s grade-A elite.  Without them, this film might have been intolerable. 

Based on the dark comedic Pulitzer Prize winning 2007 play by Tracy Letts (who also penned KILLER JOE and BUG) and directed by John Wells, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY concerns a family that gathers together after the apparent suicide of their patriarch, Beverly Weston (played in the opening scenes with a calm spoken authority by Sam Shepard, arguably given the film’s most brief and low key performance).  Mr. Weston was a talented poet driven to years of alcoholic abuse.  He may have ended his life because he had all he could take in life, but it might have had something to do with his wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), a obsessively outspoken southern gal that has recently developed cancer.  To soothe her pain, Violet has turned to a suspicious amount of medication, which has had the unfortunate side effect of making her even crueler to not only her husband, but to just about everyone else in her vicinity. 

Weston’s funeral brings the entire clan back together, but everyone seems to have their own share of faults and woes.  The oldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their teenage daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin).  The next daughter to arrive is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who has a secret love affair with her own first cousin, Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch), which she is trying to keep a secret from her domineering mother.  The last daughter to arrive is Karen (Juliette Lewis), and she comes with her brand new fiancé (Dermot Mulroney), who likes pot and has a wondering eye for other women.  Beyond these siblings, Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) also comes, husband in tow (Chris Cooper).  Tensions are high right from the get go, but things really boil over during the post-funeral dinner as all of the members of this crazy family lay out their inner most pains and try to make each other as resoundingly uncomfortable as possible. 



On a positive, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY has acquired such an impeccably assembled cast that you’re willing to forgive it for its more hard-to-swallow dramatic extremes.   Director John Wells knows how capture the stormy and downright malicious environment that the Westons reside in, but his style has been said to be slight and somewhat blandly executed, which is fair, to a degree.  Visually, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a bit stifling and suffocating, and there are times when you wish that Wells opened up his camera a bit and shot the film with a bit more variety.  Nonetheless, he does know his way around his actors, and it certainly takes an adept hand to quarterback all of them into a tightly knit performance group, which is no easy feat.  For the most part, he encourages his stars to maintain the front-and-center spotlight, which allows the film to really hone in on the incalculable level of uncomfortably that these people have when in the presence of each other.  At times, you feel like an intimate fly-on-the-wall observer of this clan’s pain and misfortune, which is the desired effect, I guess.

You may not find more fully attuned and lived-in performances in any film from 2013 than you will here.  AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY has fantastic supporting performances that all hit their intended marks, but the film is totally owned by the one-two dynamic that Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts maintain throughout the course of the narrative.  Streep has been criticized for playing Viola as a broadly over-the-top southern caricature, but that type of pan misses the mark altogether.  Viola is a cauldron of mean-spirited and antagonistic theatricality, which requires, I think, an equally aloof performance.  Viola is a woman ravaged by disease, a pill addiction, and deep resentment and regrets about her family ties.  Streep understands this, and completely immerses herself in this hellacious woman’s blood boiling and openly spiteful façade.  You also gain an immediate impression of the level of authority she has over people and how she uses words as her weapons.  There’s no denying that every time Streep occupies a frame of this film that it has an intense pulse of interest. 

Roberts, on the other hand, perhaps gives the film’s finest performance as Viola’s long-suffering daughter.  Barbara seems to be caught in the middle of all of her respective family members’ lies and cover ups, which leaves her becoming increasingly more exasperated as the film progresses, and all while she’s dealing with her own rocky marriage.  Roberts has never been so refreshingly deglammed in a role before and it’s a true delight to see her take full command of the strong willed and brutally frank Barbara.  Considering that the film requires a completely headstrong actress to plausibly play opposite of Streep and hold her own in the film, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is in secure hands when Roberts is on screen.  In tandem, both she and Streep make you completely believe that there is an entire convoluted history of deep pain and anxiety between Barbara and Viola. 

The film builds to a series of rather shocking payoffs and revelations – none of which will be spoiled by me – but it’s the scenes leading up to them that are the real epicenter of interest in the script.  There is no more venomous sequence in the film than the aforementioned funeral dinner, which begins peaceful enough, but then, slowly but surely, reaches a brutal crescendo that snowballs into a rather hearted and violent confrontation between Viola and Barbara.  Alas, this is but one of many horrifying encounters that we are privy to, and throughout all of the film’s tears, screaming and plate smashing you begin to witness just how much hopelessness permeates the Weston’s family future. 

I have read that Letts' play ran for over three hours.  The film version of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY clocks in at over two hours, and I don't think that I could bare the thought of spending another minute with this family.  I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or criticism of the film itself (it might be a bit of both), because the rich and enthralling performances help sell the film’s omnipotent level of distress.  Come to think of it, yeah, I don't ever want to suffer through AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY again…or be in the presence of its characters again, for that matter.  It’s not an easy film to sit through.  However, the incredible Oscar caliber performances are wholeheartedly commendable.  The actors here are a treasure to behold.  As for the literal experience of watching this film…maybe not so much.

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