August: Osage County
Director: John Wells.
Screenplay: Tracy Letts.
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham.
“I thought we were having a funeral dinner not a cockfight“.
If you’re aware of the work and tone of play-write Tracy Letts (who also provides the screenplay here) then you’ll pretty much get the gist of this one. He was responsible for two of William Friedkin’s finest moments; the dark, psychological horror “Bug” and the intense and disturbing thriller “Killer Joe“. Now, this doesn’t quite explore the depravity of those aforementioned films but it’s no less powerful in capturing a similar claustrophobic tension.
Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is a hard-drinking poet who has been living with his cancer stricken wife Violet (Meryl Streep) and her addiction to prescription pills and venomous outbursts for too long. When he suddenly disappears, Violet calls upon their children Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) to return home and offer some moral support. The problem is, there are no morals amongst this fractured family as past issues rear their ugly heads.
Following on from the likes of “American Hustle“ and “12 Years A Slave” this is another of the years great ensembles. If the Academy Awards deemed it fit (and one day I hope they do) to hand out an award for the efforts of the whole cast then this could consider itself a serious contender. With ensembles of this kind, sometimes a story can struggle to bring depth to a particular one or two but in this case, it felt like every character had their purpose and few, if any, were left unturned. Streep heads the onslaught with as much gusto and grandstanding as she’s ever done and acts as the catalyst to the revelations of the inner turmoil amongst her family members. She says what she wants, when she wants and refuses to yield to anyone around her – despite her own serious and damaging shortcomings. Roberts, her eldest daughter, doesn’t fall too far from the apple tree though, and gives as good as she gets. Although unlikely to win the Oscar when up against such strong competition, both have been nominated and it’s understandable why they have been. It’s not just these two on show, though. There is excellent support around them; Chris Cooper is a real standout, as the uncle with a conscience, as is the oft missed Juliette Lewis as the dippy younger sibling and touching performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Julianne Nicholson as affectionate cousins. The only one that seemed out of place was Ewan McGregor as Roberts’ estranged husband. He wasn’t bad, but he struggled to get a handle on a decent American accent and it made him stand out from the crowd ever so slightly. However, the family dynamics are still plain to see and the uncomfortable interactions are played out with such fraught tension – including a 25 minute, vitriolic, dinner scene that’s one of the finest of the year.
What with the intense acting on show and the characterisation and attention given to each of them, it can often be overlooked how sharp and blackly funny the dialogue is and how intricate Letts’ writing can be. It’s not only masterfully acted but masterfully written as well. Letts’ Pulitzer-Prize winning play has many layers and even though it sometimes comes across as slightly uneven due to director John Wells not being the most experienced in peeling those layers back, the actors certainly don’t miss their chance and sink their teeth, firmly, into them.
There may be an overly pessimistic and downbeat tone to this dysfunctional family affair but it’s containment of black humour manages to balance the venom and spite that can so often be found in family feuds and makes for hugely enjoyable theatrics.
Trivia: Tracy Letts unsuccessfully objected against producer Harvey Weinstein’s decision in the casting of British actors for the film (Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrea Riseborough who was nearly cast as Karen) as the characters are written to be all-American, but admitted he had a change of view after seeing the film.