There is sage wisdom within the story of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. Directed by John Wells and written by Tracy Letts based on his play of the same name, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a tour de force in acting on all counts. There is not a weak character or performance in the mix. This film should be mandatory in all acting classes for the screen. What is most attractive with the performances is that while some characters have less screen time than others, the character never suffers and each actor adds a nuance that stands out, becomes indelible and unforgettable like a child fighting for attention within the family.
The story of the dynastic Weston family, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a dark chapter within the darkness of this already fractured, mean-spirited and estranged family as the family comes together for the first time in forever to bury their patriarch Beverly Weston, a man who has disgraced the family by taking his own life. (Watching this family dynamic unfold, however, one understands why he would commit suicide.) Matriarch Violet, cancer-stricken, pill-popping, vulgar and manipulative, wields secrets and a venomous tongue like no other. Matching her barb-for-bard is eldest daughter Barbara, whose disdain for Osage County and her family is beyond palpable. As we watch the "grieving" process, more secrets, more resentment, more hatred spews forth from each and every member of the family. It's so decadent, so delicious, you can't turn away!
I bestow the greatest accolades on the performances of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. It was like watching my mother and myself on the big screen. They embodied the contentious, defiant, generational strength that comes from the mother-eldest daughter family dynamic. Each delivers a powerhouse performance that goes beyond raw emotion into the pulse of emotion. They are the heartbeat of the film, every breath that is breathed. They are the life's blood of the family.
Notable is Juliette Lewis's Karen. As the baby of the family, Lewis milks Karen's demeanor for all its worth and plays up to the "I'm the baby, gotta love me" attitude. From playing with her hair to scrunching her face in a mock scowl, she is unforgettable. Playing hand-in-hand is Dermot Mulroney who is delicious as fiancé Steve. Running at the mouth a mile a minute, he oozes the slickness of a used car salesman, yet quickly "assumes the position" when put in his place with five words from Streep's Violet. This is without a doubt one of the most versatile and strong performances of Mulroney's career.
As Barbara's estranged husband Bill Fordham, Ewan McGregor provides a confidence that doesn't waffle, especially when it comes to daughter Jean. A beautiful moment unfolds between Mcgregor and Abigail Breslin's Jean when he sweeps her into his arms, wrapping his hand around her head and neck like swaddling a newborn baby. Tender, telling.
A great tacit performance comes from Misty Upham, who originally blew us all away with her work in "Frozen River." As caregiver to Violet hired by Beverly just days before his death, Upham's Johnna is quietly respectful. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to the character, one is unfulfilled by film's end, left feeling something was missing as to Johnna's place within the film and character structure.
Margo Martindale is nothing short of amazing. It's never easy going toe-to-toe with Streep, especially with a volatile strong-willed character like Violet yet as Mattie Fae Aiken, Martindale bests Streep beat for beat. Watching Streep and Roberts and Streep and Martindale is like a perfect 30 dance routine on DWTS. Electrifying, sizzling and unforgettable.
Sam Shepard and Chris Cooper. As Beverly Weston and Charlie Aiken, respectively, all I can say is "Be still my heart." With few words, they can fill a book with emotion and each does that here. A standout with AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY and Letts' characterizations is that men of that generation, especially southern/midwestern men, were men of few words, who had great strength learned from enduring the bossy brassy strength of the women they were married to. They fell into the background within the marriage yet without words, were cogs in the wheels as to the family dynamic as a whole. Each is the epitome of that here. A soothing calm.
Not to be overlooked is Benedict Cumberbatch who, as Little Charlie Aiken brings an innocent sweetness to the film, masking a deadly secret of which not even Charlie is aware. It's a delightful lightness that at times reminds each of us that whenever you get near the family and the parents, the insecurities of childhood come bubbling forth.
Always a huge fan of cinematographer Adriano Goldman, here is no different. Lensing is soft, yet strong, buttressed by detailed production design and set design of David Gropman and Nancy Haigh, respectively. Making the most of the confines of the house, Goldman uses doorways and windows to his advantage, setting the tone of focus. Magnificent are some of the porch scenes which are mostly lensed at an angled POV (not Dutch, but just an angled perspective) that makes the metaphoric most of the screening, sunlight and light filtration. The effect just fuels the emotion and the subtext of secrets.
Given that the play is moved to the screen, a shortcoming is that director Wells fails to take advantage of the spaciousness that affords and doesn't push the envelope to expand the visual to match the expansive emotion and performances.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, the play, has always been a personal favorite. The timelessness of the story, the truth of the characters, the dynamic of the family. It's rich, raw and real. And kudos to John Wells as that same vibrancy carries from stage to screen with this film. So often that truth and freshness of an open wound loses something in the stage to screen translation, but here it doesn't. What is lost, however, and that's due to the need to compress time for the screen, is the short shrift that the other swirling relationships beyond the main dynamic of Violet and Barbara get. This is such a dense story in terms of the family relationships that you really need time for not only the story to breathe, but for the characters and their interpersonal dynamics to organically burgeon forth and also breathe. Personally, I would have liked to see the film's length expanded to allow adequate time for these other characters.
A downfall with AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY has always been, and continues to be, the fact that we pick up the story with the family dysfunctional and estranged and at film's end it still is, if not moreso. But at the end of the day, this is all about performance and there's nothing dysfunctional or unsatisfying about those.
Directed by John Wells
Written by Tracy Letts based on his play of the same name
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Misty Upham