Review: ‘August: Osage County’ Keeps the Drama at Home

By December 24, 2013

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The acting-heavy August: Osage County is an atmospheric drama that provides a difficult-to-watch portrait of a dysfunctional family.

Based on Tracey Lett’s Tony Award-winning play, the film (also penned by Letts) centers on the broken Weston family. The cancer-stricken Violet (Meryl Streep) is heavily addicted to painkillers and unable to care for herself. When her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) doesn’t return home one evening, she contacts her three daughters, whose arrival brings an array of issues to the surface.

There’s the dutiful Ivy (a fantastically understated Julianne Nicholson), the bitter and emotionally exhausted Barbara (Julia Roberts), who brings her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) and angsty teen daughter (Abigail Breslin), and the delusional Karen (the comedically adept Juliette Lewis), who arrives with her narcissistic squeeze, Steve (Dermot Mulroney). It doesn’t take long before tensions become heightened, fights ensue and damaging comments are made.

Of course Streep masterfully captures Violet’s drug dependency and anguish but it’s difficult not to view her as the great Meryl Streep giving a performance. Roberts’ public persona, on the other hand, is a bit easier to ignore. The role requires her to be angry and joyless, characteristics she seldom exhibits on screen. That said, there are many questions to ponder about Barbara and few of them are answered by the film’s conclusion, making the character feel less developed.

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Rounding out the cast of characters are Violet’s sister (Margo Martindale), her husband Charles (Chris Cooper), and their son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is one of the more redeeming characters in the film. In many ways, the three supporting players offer a refreshingly subdued alternative to the headliners. This is particularly true of the innocent (albeit iffy) relationship between Ivy and Little Charles. Their calm dynamic offers a moment of peace from the grandiose shouting matches that emerge during the second act.

Director John Wells effectively transfers the play to screen, largely by utilizing the rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma location where the film was shot and at times using claustrophobic camera setups.

While there are a few instances of light-heartedness (somehow it’s been classified as a comedy by Golden Globes voters), August: Osage County is mostly dark and uncomfortable. So while there are some commendable performances and plenty else to enjoy about the film, watching it feels like work at certain points. With the exception of Charles, Little Charles and Ivy, it contains few likable characters – and many of them are self-centered and difficult to care about.

Much of the time the viewer feels like a guest at a family gathering gone awry, wishing we could just slowly back out of the room. Perhaps that’s exactly what Wells and Letts intended.

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Justine Browning
Justine is a film and culture reporter whose work has appeared in USA Today, Indie Wire and The Huffington Post. She currently serves as an on-camera correspondent for MovieWeb and Cine Movie TV.