August: Osage County, adapted by Tracy Letts from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play, has awards bait written all over it, from its spectacular ensemble cast to its succession of ravaging put downs. It’s a shame, then, that the force and effectiveness of the film, then, is let down by drab, staid direction and a tendency to be as boisterous and melodramatic as possible where a little more poignancy would have better done the trick.
When their father (Sam Shepard) disappears unexpectedly, the Weston children – Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), Barbara (Julia Roberts) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) – and their respective families return to a blistering hot, sparse Oklahoma to lend support to their cancer-stricken, pill-popping mother Violet (Meryl Streep). It’s doesn’t take long, however, until old wounds are exposed and real discord comes to pass.
August: Osage County surges to life with a war of words between Violet and Beverly that perfectly lays weight to the cracks in their relationship, and seldom lets up over the course of its vigorous, yet taxing 121 minute run time. Letts successfully translates the liveliness and energy of the stage play, with heated verbal – and sometimes physical – exchanges flaring up right, left and centre, leaving each characters’ ego bruised, beaten and battered in its persistent, icy-cold wake.
The actors efficiently rise to the challenge, delivering the sharp dialogue with real vehemence. The film belongs to Streep though, and she owns every scene she’s in as the mad, violent and deeply aggressive matriarch. It’s a real testament to the likes of Roberts, Nicholson and Margo Martindale as Violet’s callous sister Mattie Fae, though, that their dedication to their roles – which, when all is said and done, wind up on a par with Streep’s – aren’t entirely overwhelmed.
At times though, August: Osage County can’t help but feel like a never-ending series of damnations – some more conceivable than others – that lack in a stable understructure and outright purpose. It doesn’t help that John Wells’ direction creates an uninviting place of extreme wretchedness that audiences will be themselves battling to escape from. But for those after a riotously funny, if extensive, bitch-fest laced with terrific performances, this is the film for you.