It is often said that the ones we love are the people who end up hurting us the most. This is especially true within the complex, and often confusing, confines of the family structure. Regardless of our cultural backgrounds, the sometimes awkward and painful dynamics that makes up families unites us all. We may not all have the same experiences, but we can identify with a person like Violet Weston (Meryl Streep). She is that member of the family who feels the need to spew her acid tongue versions of “the truth” regardless of who it impacts. She is the person who attempts to bring everyone down to her level of misery while still expecting sympathy and support.
The strange thing about family is that it is the only place where this type of verbal and mental abuse seems acceptable. Despite what we may have achieved in our lives, we never seem to escape reverting back to our unofficial roles once back within the confines of the family home. Some are instantly forced into being caregivers; others will try to assert their leadership; some will suffer verbal badgering in silence; while others will endure their fellow family members just long enough until that can simply wash their hands of the issue.
In August: Osage County director John Wells holds up an unflinching mirror of a family structure that we know all too well. At the centre of the chaotic Weston household is Violet and her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard), a couple who have settled into an unhealthy, but comfortable, routine of indulging in their own vices. Violet, suffering from cancer, is addicted to pills, while Beverly drowns his sorrows in alcohol. One day, after unexpectedly hiring a Native American maid (Misty Upham) to take care of Violet, Beverly goes for a walk and never returns. After a few days a distraught Violet calls on the only support she knows…her family. The first to offer assistance is her sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper). Just as brash as Violet, Mattie does not hesitate to berate her seemingly, according to her, dimwitted son “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Also answering the call, begrudgingly mind you, is Violet’s three daughters: Barbara Weston-Fordham (Julia Roberts), Karen Weston (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy Weston (Julianne Nicholson). Strong-willed like her mother, Barbara struggles to raise her teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) while facing a crumpling marriage to Bill (Ewan McGregor). Karen is the free spirit of the three who prefers to run away from her problems rather than confront them. She shows up to her mother’s house with a new fiancée, Steve Heidebrecht (Dermot Mulroney), who seems more interested in impressing Jean with his “hipness” than consoling Karen in a time of crisis. Of all Violet’s daughters, it is Ivy who has had to endure the most of her mother’s wrath. The one who stayed closest to home, Ivy has been the de facto caregiver during portions of her mother’s ailments.
As is often the case when family gets together, tensions rise as both the whereabouts of Beverly and long hidden secrets are revealed. However, unlike most star-studded family dramas, John Wells does not even remotely hint at a warm fuzzy about face for any of his characters. Instead, Wells takes them, and the viewer, through the raw and downright dirty ways in which a family can inflict pain on itself. This is not an image of life the way we want it to be, but rather a pulpy version of the way life often is. We cannot choose our family, even if we marry into it, yet the best we can do is hope to survive them until the next family crisis calls us back home.
Though August: Osage County may sound like a bleak endeavor, what makes it thrilling to watch is the sensational performances by the ensemble cast. It has almost become a cliché to assume that Meryl Streep is wonderful in every role she touches, but she truly provides a master class in acting here. There is an illness in Violet that goes much deeper than the cancer in her mouth. Streep always keeps you guessing as to whether her vicious bile is inherent or something that has come with years of hardship. To her credit, Julia Roberts gives one of the most underappreciated supporting performances of the past year. Matching Streep beat for beat, Roberts’ Barbara is a woman who feels like she needs to constantly take control of any given situation, but often lacks the foresight that her mother has. In many ways Barbara’s desire for control has caused as much friction in her marriage as it has in the Weston household at large.
The performances elevate August: Osage County above other modern films that have been adapted from plays. Wells does not add many visual flourishes to the film favoring, instead, to wade in the thick melodrama. This allows us to both observe each new fracture as it surfaces, and reflect on how it alters the constantly evolving character dynamics. While the lack of truly memorable visual aesthetics keeps the film from going that extra step towards becoming an instant classic, it is hard not to fall under the pulpy melodramatic spell of the production. August: Osage County holds no punches in showing a family that is as broken as the cracked mirror we are looking at them through.