August: Osage County is a film with one hell of a pedigree. Based on the Pulitzer-winning play by Tracy Letts (and adapted for the screen by Letts), produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, with attention-grabbing turns from the likes of (deep breath now) Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney and, oh yes, Meryl obligatory-Oscar-nod Streep… this is the kind of movie that usually gets awards season weak at the knees. With a cast that heavy you need a director who knows how to handle a crowd, so we’ve got John Wells, former showrunner on both ER and The West Wing; two programs known for their puffed-up ensembles. On paper, this should be collecting gongs like nobody’s business.
However, the reception for Wells’ film has been somewhat hesitant. Acknowledgements here and there, granted, but, compared to other studio hopefuls, this Weinstein production has seemed unusually muted. Delving into the film it’s not hard to guess why, especially in a crowded year for notable pictures. Letts’ material, though first class, isn’t an obvious or easy sell, and whether it is best suited to the silver screen is another question altogether.
But here it is. And despite the measured critical response so far, there’s a lot to appreciate and respect. Letts’ tale concerns an overdue family reunion in the sweltering titular county following the unexpected death of poet and patriarch Beverly Weston (Shepard). He leaves behind him his pill-popping, cancerous widow Violet (Streep). As her daughters assemble for the funeral, bringing with them their various personal baggage, the stage is set for numerous confrontations. Letts’ grasp of how those closest to you can inflict the most damage is keenly evident, and August: Osage County bristles with barbed comments and cat-fights.
All in all it’s not a million miles away from the territory we found ourselves in with William Friedkin’s Killer Joe – as there we are presented with a family intent on picking itself to the bone. Letts may have shifted the locale from the trailer park to the country home, but the place is tellingly ramshackle, downtrodden and splintered, blinds taped down to keep out the bright day outside. That last is a telling motif for the darkness dwelling within Violet as she turns on her kin in her drug-addled grief.
Again Letts saves up his sharpest dramatic spikes for mealtimes. August offers up two prime examples. The first is a bravura 25-minute sit down with the fantastic cast during which Violet gains perverse glee from twisting the knife into any and all in her sights. The second is a far less populated lunch. A shorter affair with no less impact, during which a considerable portion of catfish gets dumped on the floor. The Westons may fall short of molesting a bucket of fried chicken, but not by much.
As ringleader to this feast of the damned, Meryl Streep is a revelation. So often is she given fanfare for her roles that it’s easy to scoff or even roll eyes at the prospect of another attention-grabbing appearance. The simple truth – given added clout by her Violet in August –is that Streep is such a fiercely talented force that she merits such attention. She’s as good here as she’s ever been, and if she’s overlooked this year when it comes to the dolling out of statues, it may only be the more vile aspects of Violet that are her undoing.
She is ably supported. Julia Roberts has been deservedly praised also for her turn as Barbara Weston; the daughter torn between abandonment guilt and the disintegration of her own marriage. But only a cursory inspection reveals that there are plenty more shining performances here. Particularly impressive is the comparatively lesser-known Julianne Nicholson as Ivy. A less bombastic presence, Nicholson presents Violet’s wallflower daughter as both weary and wary, her intimate connection to cousin ‘Little’ Charles (Cumberbatch) the fuel to the film’s glowering second half.
And while the remainder of the cast are to greater and lesser degrees marginalised by Letts’ pruning of his own material, everyone still gets time to shine, not least Chris Cooper who seems impervious to bad performance. Speaking of which, even Ewan McGregor doesn’t manage to embarrass himself, and it feels like a while since that’s been the case.
There is a feeling here that Letts is trying to open up a broader discussion about the American family, particularly between generations, yet Wells’ film fails to fully embellish or explore these potential layers. Though entirely competent and at times sparsely beautiful, the film often defers to the material and the performances, coasting slightly on it’s already abundant riches. With Wells failing to firmly place his own stamp on the film, one suspects this iteration of August: Osage County will always be thought of as a slightly faded facsimile of the original work, as opposed to a piece of equal power.
None of which takes away from the enjoyment that can be had over the two hours of material here. There are many great films that have come from stage plays (12 Angry Men, The Lion In Winter as examples) and few of them shake off the feeling that they’re anything other than what they are. If Wells’ film isn’t quite as enduring then it still remains a punchy piece of American family drama, one not afraid to allow inelegance to glare like the sunlight breaking through blotted out windows.