August: Osage County
DIRECTOR: John Wells
CAST: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney
RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes
RATING: ****


DARK and strangely funny on occasion, this family drama focuses on the strong-willed women of the Weston family, brought home to a hothouse of nastiness.

The implied suicide of the father, Beverly (Shepard), has reunited the family for the spilling of family secrets, turning recently hired nurse Johnna (Misty Upham), into a silent witness to the final unravelling of the Weston clan.

The plot is lifted straight off the pages of the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, except that on screen the action occasionally shifts out of doors.

As they drive up to the Oklahoma home, wife Barbara (Roberts) and husband Bill (McGregor) talk about the difference between the mid-west and where they are in Oklahoma.

“This is the plains, a state of mind, right, some spiritual affliction, like the blues,” she says and the palpable, shimmering heat, rolling wheat fields and wide-open sky create a sense of the environ-ment as a silent character.

The strong ensemble cast invests the characters with shading and nuance, but there is a nasty, mean streak running through this family, making it difficult to like them.

The dialogue is sharp and keeps your attention, even when not every one of them gets a chance to really bring it home.

Streep is in fine form as the sharp-tongued increasingly brittle Violet, a mean old drug-addled woman who is slowly pushing everyone away.

Middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the only one who has stayed close to home and she is slowly losing her passion for life – and she knows it.

Eldest daughter Barbara, for her part, seems to have inherited her mom’s meanness, and Roberts matches Streep’s vitriolic matriach with a potent mixture of red-hot rage and cold, emotional fatigue.

Then there’s youngest daughter Karen (Lewis), fixated on getting that marriage she believes will make everything all right in her world.

The men in their lives are for the most part much nicer people. There’s the ever-patient Charles (Cooper), married to Mattie Fae (under-used Margo Martindale), Violet’s sister.

Cooper gets his chance to show his mettle in the beautifully empathetic way he sticks up for his son Little Charles (Cumberbatch), the butt of his mother’s jokes and the recipient of all her anger.

Barbara’s Bill may be patient, too, but his affair with a student has broken their marriage.

He understands Barbara better than she understands herself and his eventual decision to leave is painted as a way to protect his daughter, Jean (Breslin), and to break the potentially toxic hostility she is creating towards her own mother.

This is ultimately a story about a broken family who cannot even mourn properly because their dysfunctional mother tears them apart with her tongue.

The sheer calibre of all that talent being thrown at the screen is incredible, so this is more about the acting than necessarily the storyline.

It is emotionally draining, though, even when it is insightful.


If you liked The Descendants you will like this.