On many levels, August: Osage County comes across as an epic Southern family drama where, after simmering for decades, its many members’ respective secrets come to a head. The difference is that said revelations occur in Oklahoma, which playwright Tracy Letts (adapting his own work for the screen) and a Who’s Who of Hollywood talent deftly show is a beast unto itself. In this smoldering, desolate landscape, the Weston family long ago staked its claim yet has grown fractured over the years by various dysfunctions. Following the death of patriarch writer Beverly (Sam Shepard), the scattered clan reunites at the old homestead where, over the course of a few days, an impressive dramatic showcase unfolds.
Introduced in a fluid, natural fashion, the Westons comprise a fascinating array of character types, played with precision by a crackerjack cast. Letts reveals just enough about each person to make the dynamic a heightened yet believable mix and wisely saves the juicier bits for those who can handle the assignment. As pill-popping, cancer-riddled materfamilias Violet, Meryl Streep gives the kind of big, loud performance that’s typically accused of being shameless awards-season bait, but such a dismissal in this case is too simple an excuse. Violet is a big, loud character, and from her cruel quasi-omniscience to her vulnerable affinity for Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally,” Streep provides just the type of volatile lead figure the film needs to shake up the dormant Westons.
Her turn is a fine one, but the victory of August: Osage County is that nearly all of the supporting players feel just as big in their own way. Clearly relishing the role of eldest daughter Barbara, Julia Roberts hasn’t been this acid-tongued in at least a decade. Her struggle between telling the awful truths and devout loyalty to her family works well against sisters Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis), who bring respective tragic relationship issues to the gathering. If their prickly home life wasn’t rich enough material, complications with the respective men in their lives bring a tantalizing undercurrent of conflict. As Barbara’s recently-separated husband Bill, Ewan McGregor is perfect as an uptight academic type, giving in to every embarrassing verbal trap by opening his yap, and if the taste in cars and musical choices of Karen’s Florida fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney) don’t solidify his gaudy personality, his dinner table actions will.
At this bread-breaking locale, these personalities combine with those of aunt Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), uncle Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) for an explosive 20-minute sequence that seems poised to comprise the rest of the film, something that would have been a perfectly acceptable decision. [About the only half-drawn member during this and other scenes is Barbara and Bill’s 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), whose distant adolescent ways merely limit her character development.] The cutting in this stretch between the large number of faces is so sharp and the material’s tension so high that the general uninspired nature of John Wells’ direction is easy to forgive. William Friedkin, the man behind Letts’ Killer Joe and Bug, almost certainly would have brought a little more pop to the filmmaking, but when the writing and acting are clicking at such a high caliber, there’s minimal harm in Wells letting it play out.
Rated R for language including sexual references, and for drug material.
August: Osage County is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.