By: Martin Conte
It’s every movie buff’s guilty pleasure. It’s like getting wine tipsy, or treating yourself to dinner just before the rent is due. Putting some of the finest actors and actresses currently at work in the same dilapidated mansion, alongside the finest actress of any generation and shaking up the bottle with crisis after crisis until each of their heads explode, all in the exquisitely graceful hands of a fearlessly romantic director, makes August: Osage County the treasure to film buffs that it is.
Set in the plains of Oklahoma, Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) is the recently widowed, pill-popping, violently critical matriarch who watches with a masochistic pleasure as the lives of each of her three daughters disappoint her in just the way she expects each to. The family grieves the loss of the father figure Beverly (Sam Shepard), who is romanticized and, as the only absent one, appears to be the only one with any sort of dignity left to him. They all eventually look to the oldest sister, Barbara (Julia Roberts) for guidance, and she slowly bends to the same low as her mother, as each new calamity is laid upon her. The Westons are hicks in purest form: politically incorrect, drinkers, smokers and each an unflinching survivor. But the Westons are also poets, writers, readers and lunatics; allusions to Greek mythology and literary figures run rampant through the film. The film opens with Beverly delivering a line from T.S Eliot: “Life is very long.” Later, his daughter will reprise the line with “Good thing we can’t see the future. If we did, we’d never get up in the morning.” And throughout the film, there is the incessant presence, in the disastrous wake of Bev’s death, of a line Barbara will return to again and again: “Now what?”
Much can be said about the constraints of this film. Each character feels the need to show their emotions on their sleeve; no one holds back, even when we expect them to. Everyone must face some seemingly unbearable crisis, each of which in any other film would stand alone as the tipping point. Put them together, and you begin to wonder if this isn’t just the apocalypse of all family disasters.
But in this visceral plot of revenge, and incest and anger and disgust and cruelty and killer instinct, each performance comes to a head in a sweep of brilliant character acting. Each family member is given the chance to grapple with the decay of land and life, to face the bodies in the closet, and we’re left wondering how many will survive. A good half of the film is delivered in high decibel, as screaming matches erupt every five minutes. Indeed, eventually there is a wrestling match on the living room floor. Supporting performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, and Misty Upham shine, bouncing off each other in fits of glee and anger like the glorious image of burning ships in port. But it is Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper who shine as Violet’s sister Mattie Fae and her husband Charlie. While the family has certainly lost its way, it is only Charlie’s gentle moral compass and Mattie Fae’s rich laughter that can steer them straight.
We could write books about the magic that occurs when Meryl Streep performs, and we already have. I don’t need to tell anyone how miraculous her talent is, that effortlessly flows out of herself, into the balding, drugged up, withered shell that is Violet. But let the trumpets of Hollywood sing, for never before have we witnessed another actress who with such ferocity steals the spotlight from Streep, as Julia Roberts does in this film. The two characters go head to head, toe to toe, and the dialogue flies like medieval lances. Who can suffer more, who is stronger, who will outlast the insults of the other? Radiating all the heat of a hound from Hell, Roberts stands over the defeated Streep and shouts “You don’t get it, do you? You don’t get it? I am running things now!”
August may not be a part of the digital revolution that is changing the possibilities of film magic. Nor is it one of those films that fills your heart with inspiration–those epic, sweeping tales of American bravery or genius. But it is a film driven by sensational actors, embroiled as complicated, distraught and genuine characters, that paints a portrait of those always distant plains, where survival is still an act of kicking and screaming.