Meryl Streep is one horrifying matriarch in August: Osage County, an excellent adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Tony Award-winning play. She leads the Weston family as Violet, a scornful woman with mouth cancer who looks like a washed-up ’70s rock band singer while donning her dark black wig. Her family is one of the most dysfunctional film has seen, with her daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) supposedly the most levelheaded. She’s separated from her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) is a rebel without a cause, smoking pot and disobeying every one of her parents’ orders. Another sister is Karen (Juliette Lewis), who often brings different men home; she drags along loose cannon Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who’s almost always handling work and carries his confidence on his shoulder. The final sister is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the most independent of the bunch who holds some secrets of her own.
Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), is married to Charles (Chris Cooper), and their son, “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), comes in town for the funeral of Violet’s husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), and the aftermath. And oh my, do these people have some issues with one another. Most of the film takes place around a dinner table, with the characters spewing spiteful remarks that grow increasingly biting and effective. They are hilariously offending, with the film delving deep into these characters’ anxieties, their views on standard acceptances, and the utter destruction of the family center that Violet has instigated. Streep plays her with such a scathing intensity that it’s unlike any performance of hers; she draws every eyeball to the screen, gluing our attention to her scenery-chewing, cigarette-smoking, iced tea-drinking sociopath of a mother. She’s high on pills and drunk as part of a daily routine. This character is all over the place, but Streep grounds her in a most remarkable way.
John Well’s direction does not distance the film from its play-like structure. This is a contained, controlled feature that stays within the confines of the home’s fences for almost all of its duration; when it leaves, there’s a visual heft the film carries. The script swerves between twists as if they are natural for this type of gathering, which makes the final half hour a bit unhinged. Although there’s an irregular sincerity to the way these characters are unfamiliar with one another and shout expletives across the table, the plot points that emerge near the film’s conclusion act more as surprises than effective dramatic points. The ensemble here, though, is the best I have seen this year, not only having an eccentric bunch of character actors gathering but also providing each of them with moments to shine.
This is an emotionally draining film due to these central performances. Roberts is phenomenal as Barbara, who continues to resemble her mother throughout the film until a reveal near the end becomes downright terrifying. Wells frames her actions with emotional grounding, which also serves as a testament to Letts’ impressive characterizations. The film closes with Roberts’ character, signifying this tale as her story, but that leaves a predicament: why is Streep so front-and-center for most of the film’s duration, and how can she be submitted as lead with Roberts supporting? Nonetheless, both of those performances are triumphs, and the little moments here work with Martindale, Cooper, Cumberbatch, Lewis, and Nicholson shining. I left August: Osage County with an impressed mind, as if I had seen the hell that some families can endure. A slightly better structure would’ve left a great piece of cinema.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)