August: Osage County – The Dysfunctional Family From Hell

At the Premiere in L.A. of August: Osage County, Julia Roberts & Meryl Streep

‘Some people are antagonized by the truth‘ – August: Osage County is a movie from The Weinstein Company. It is a powerful, raw, emotive harrowing complex telling of a dark tawdry gut-wrenching tale about a miserable family, who gather together for a funeral of their husband, father, brother and uncle.

It was adapted for the silver screen by Tracy Letts from his 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award winning stage play and features a fine ensemble cast of actors carefully chosen and perfectly cast. It is no surprise they have been nominated for many awards as a group.

They are Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Sam Shepherd, Abigail Breslin, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney and Misty Upham.

The brilliant script by Letts exposes each individual and their limitations as a human being. It examines their very worse traits in detail, as well as the truly dreadful relationships that exist between the strong willed women of the Weston family.

While it has a few moments of levity, the only thing they did for me was to highlight just how dark a story it really was. If you don’t wish to know anything about the show please, don’t read any more.

Julia Roberts & Meryl Streep, mother and daughter in August: Osage County 2013

The truly dreadful matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) spearheads this family. She triggers and empowers their revealing knock ‘em down and out shocking self-examination.

She is the chain-smoking pill popping harridan widow of Beverly Weston (Sam Shephard), a man we find out in the first moments of the film, who simply cannot live any longer with his wife Violet (Streep).

So he hires a young Native American girl (Upham) to look after her.

Instead of leaving as we might expect because we know she’s ill. The next thing we discover is that he has rowed out onto a nearby lake and taken the sad way out, killing himself.

After spending two hours with Violet ourselves we can well understand not only why he was driven to commit such an act, but also his motivation to do so.

Meryl Streep is a truly vile Violet Weston. She is positively the most dysfunctional manipulative dreadful woman and mother anyone could possibly imagine. She’s far more than the mother from hell; she’s damaged goods on a grand scale.

On this harrowing journey she exposes her own dreadful upbringing, which she has personally added to layer by layer with all the disappointments and difficulties that have occurred in her life.

These difficult to deal with dilemmas are also being exacerbated by her current condition. Cancer of the mouth, copious pills and lashings of alcohol, which have contributed to shaping her into the horrible, embittered, twisted ugly woman that she has become.

Everything she hates about herself, her husband and her family comes raging to the surface at his funeral dinner.

She punishes everyone who surrounds her as they try to bring her some measure of comfort at such an awful time.

Violet and Karen, a lighter moment

She finally drives them all to their own particular points of no return leaving her, so at the end she is left sobbing hopelessly in her carer’s arms.

It’s nigh on impossible to know just how to feel after witnessing and sitting through this movie, which is so full of venom and hatred.

Must say that I was indeed glad to resurface into the sunshine of South Yarra and revisit my own world in a new light.

It was like being rescued from drowning in the murky depths of water so dark that neither hope or light would penetrate.

My admiration for the performance of Julia Roberts as Violet’s daughter Barbara sprang immediately to the surface, as I endeavoured to take something home with me. Hers is an amazing performance.

And then there is Meryl Streep as Violet. Impossible to express superlatives for Violet, but Meryl, well she proves she is in a class of her own once and for all.

These two stellar actresses both turn in what individually, and together must be surely two of the most convincing, powerful performances by women ever on screen. It should be a dead-heat for any awards, they both spark of each other. Talk about a great example of ‘an eye for an eye and the whole world will be blind’. The audience at my session was totally silenced into submission, as they applied their thumbscrews of torture in such a skilfull way.

How the whole cast prepared themselves for their own roles is completely admirable. We certainly buy into ingesting their fear.

It’s easy to imagine that on the live stage the play must have been so powerful the audience would have been shocked and stunned into total submission and silence.

Surely the whole cast, and possibly many of the crew, would have needed time out basking in the beauty of the Maldives or the Bahamas afterwards. How else could anyone come back from such a deep, dark place of being?

The scene where Julia and Meryl (Violet) finally punch and beat into each other out on the dining room floor is so confrontational, you are left wondering how they, and you can ever come back from it, such is the realism you are witnessing. Hell certainly has no fury like the Weston women when they are scorned.

Julia Robert’s role as Barbara, an exceedingly hard human being, is contrasted by that of her caring husband Bill. He is played sensitively by Ewan McGregor, with Abigail Breslin as their vegetarian 14-year-old pot experimenting daughter Jean.

Bill has recently left Barbara and they are wanting to keep this change of events a secret from the rest of the family. We find out that he and Jean have agreed to come on this final journey to the hellish hot Osage Country in the height of summer: August.

Julia Roberts and Ewen McGregor, Barbara and Bill

Poor Bill gets far more than he ever bargained for. You can well understand when he and Jean flee away together, never to return.

Then there is Karen (Juliette Lewis). She is the flighty foolhardy youngest daughter newly engaged to the flashy fickle ‘Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who we find out has been married three times previously.

It doesn’t matter though, Karen considers him perfect.

Poor Karen, she does try valiantly to be light hearted in dark times, but in so many other ways she is another lost soul. She has, for her own reasons, found some sort of solace in the arms of the insincere Steve, who is an exceedingly dodgy businessman from Florida.

He is caught smoking pot and molesting 14 year old Jean by Johnna Monevata (Upham), who takes to him with a spade. She’s the single silent witness in this to all the mayhem and says such a great deal with her all-seeing eyes.

What a god-forsaken place Osage county is, at least the parts we see of it in the movie.

Dry, hot, endless flat dirt red fields, dotted endlessly by mile after mile of telegraph poles, highlighted by a straight road undulating as it carves through it and heads off into the infinity of the American plains, like a long endless echo of despair.

Charlie and Little Charlie - Cooper and Cumberbatch

The extraordinary thing is all the women are married to such kind, sensitive men whose caring and loving abilities are highlighted by the awful going’s on, especially in a scene between Chris Cooper as Charlie Aiken and Benedict Cumberbatch as his son, little Charles Aiken.

This happens when Charlie arrives to pick little Charlie up from the bus in town where the gauge says the temperature is over the century.

It seems little Charlie has arrived far too late to attend the funeral of his uncle, having forgotten to turn on his alarm clock.

Touching isn’t the right word to say.

For me, just as little Charlie struggles to speak at all, it is a struggle to find the right words to describe how beautiful the scene between them is when father and son declare their love for each other.

The older Charlie has an enormous capacity for fairness, love and acceptance of his son’s and the other family members and their human frailty. His convictions are tested to every limit.

Charlie and Bill, us sensitive guys need to stick together and support each other

Director John Wells more than excels himself with the gifted guidance he has given his actors in every scene of this movie, but most especially for me in this one.

Cumberbatch in what is a small role is entirely awesome. Little Charlie, who has never been allowed to lose his debilitating childhood name, clearly has problems coping with the world.

However he does have an ally, one person who truly loves and adores him. It’s the gentle Ivy, played so beautifully by Julianne Nicholson.

Ivy is the only Weston woman who has seemingly fought hard against the single-minded dour and disturbing attitudes of her two sisters Barbara (Roberts) and Karen (Lewis) as well as the overwhelming presence of their awful mother Violet (Streep), whom despite everything, they all realize they love.

Ivy however wants to keep and retain the very best part of herself and only share it with little Charlie.

Little Charlie is her first cousin, well so she thinks. He is the only person in her life who has ever allowed her to be her true self.

So together they have hatched a plan to keep their love for each other a secret and run away to New York after the funeral and make a life together.

But will they let her?

We find out she’s had a hysterectomy, so is not concerned about the problem of cousins copulating.

The problem will only come if, and when his mother finds out.

Little Charlie continually apologies all the time and is completely clumsy in his mother’s presence. He is the way he is because of how she has treated him over such a long period of time; with disdain and hatred.

He has delightful hidden talents though, which he can and does only share with Ivy.

Mattie Fae Aiken his mother is played ably by Margo Martindale. She just happens to be Violet’s sister and has a dark secret of her own and yes, it’s about little Charlie.

It is buried so deep that when it does erupt to the surface it threatens total destruction.

Mattie Fae is an overweight ‘jolly’ type of person we are led to believe, at least in the first moments we are first introduced to her.

Laughter could be her middle name.

However, that’s all short lived. Being once more with her sister Violet exposes her as yet another deeply disturbed dark Weston woman. The difference is she unleashes her venom solely at little Charlie, her only son.

If ever a movie, or a setting, lets us all know how what we witness and experience during our childhood, and how we are treated by those we are meant to trust, can shape and define our future life if we let it, this is the one.

Those who do have the strength and ability to endure and rise above the horrible history they have with a dysfunctional family like the Weston’s know that it takes a certain type of inner courage to survive and to go on and lead a fruitful life.

Most people would not ever begin to comprehend or to understand how difficult that is to achieve.

Meryl Streep has gone on record as saying she finally agreed to take on this role as one of her friends contrasted to her their own upbringings; Meryl in a happy home full of laughter and music, while her friend lived in one full of despair.

It also highlights what it does boil down to in the end for all of us – is our choices.

This movie certainly penetrated the very depths of my being. While admirably acted, amazingly directed and awesomely presented, I am not sure it could be described as uplifting entertainment.

What I can do however, is to admire the very fine script, the setting, the sheer brilliance of the director and his stellar knock out cast.

August: Osage County is perhaps the cathartic journey we all need to experience, so that we can fully appreciate and cherish the sort of life we are able to live in the western world in 2014.

Most especially if we make our own choices and have the courage of our own convictions.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

Watch the Trailer

August: Osage County

Director: John Wells

Writer: Tracy Letts (screenplay)

Meryl Streep as Violet Weston

Julia Roberts as Barbara Weston-Fordham

Ewan McGregor as Bill Fordham

Chris Cooper as Charles Aiken

Abigail Breslin as Jean Fordham

Benedict Cumberbatch as “Little” Charles Aiken

Juliette Lewis as Karen Weston

Margo Martindale as Mattie Fae Aiken

Dermot Mulroney as Steve Heidebrecht

Julianne Nicholson as Ivy Weston

Sam Shepard as Beverly Weston

Misty Upham as Johnna Monevata

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