If you want an example of full-force acting, then look no further than August: Osage County. Based on the award-winning play written by Tracey Letts, it unites a stellar cast of a-list actors and up-and-comers in a single house over the course of a few days. While the plot is fairly thin on the ground, the performances are so strong that they threaten to bring down the whole film.
Set in a hot August just outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma the Weston family all congregate for a funeral. Matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), a pill-addicted housewife welcomes back her daughters back home following the death of her husband Beverly (Sam Shepherd). Eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), who has inherited her strong-will is accompanied by husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Middle daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives with her latest in a long line of fiancÃ©s the wealthy Steve (Dermot Mulroney), while youngest daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has remained with Beverly along with Auntie Mattie Fae (Margot Martindale) her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their put-upon son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). After the funeral, the family all fall into familiar and destructive patterns as a series of revelations reveal the truth behind the intertwining relationships.
August: Osage County introduces a series of characters in a stressful situation and slowly teases out conflicts based around their familial past. At the heart of all the conflicts though is that between Streep’s Vi and Roberts’ Barbara. Two similarly strong-willed women, their confrontational natures eventually spill over and at the dinner table after the funeral they explode in a few moments of rage. Streep is one of the most celebrated female actors of all time brings every ounce of anger and stomach-turning dragon-like venom in her to provide the film’s centrepiece antagonist. What is surprising is how much sympathy she is able to induce with such a nasty character. It is a performance of explosive rage and subtle pity and has to be seen to be believed.
August: Osage County is not an easy watch. The sheers number of antagonists is almost overwhelming at times and the constant revelations beat the audience down into a state of shock. Each relationship appears to have one strong-willed nasty piece of work and one put-upon, kind character and over the course of the film, the former beats the latter down into a state of defeat. Anyone who exhibits any kindness or compassion is made to suffer and by the very end it proves too much.
This is not to say that all films should have a ˜happy ending,’ but to have everyone’s life worse off is too much of a bitter pill to swallow. There is no positivity left and without a stirring dramatic narrative to hold it all together it ends up feeling like an opportunity for the big actors to shout ouch other off-screen. If that is the case then the performances are all of such a high standard that it is impossible to pick one above the other, although special mention should go to Julia Roberts who manages to out-fury Streep’s damaged Violet in a scene that ends with the eldest daughter shouting her mother down with I am running things now! It’s so forceful as to leave the audience shell-shocked.
August: Osage County is constantly bogged down by overwhelming individual performances of strength, but with a cast including ex-Oscar winners and some of the most sought-after up-and-comers in Hollywood it is difficult to complain. It’s a difficult watch, but if you like the idea of an episode of Jerry Springer with an A-List cast then this is the film for you. Don’t forget to wear a flack-jacket though.