When Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) goes missing and leaves his drug addled wife Violet (Meryl Streep) alone in their family home, the Weston daughters Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Barbara (Julia Roberts) congregate to show their support. Also in tow are the Aikens, Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her beleaguered husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their man-child son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). Karen’s sleazy boyfriend Steve (Dermot Mulroney) is spending a little too much time trying to impress Barbara’s 14 year old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), whilst Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) is still brooding about the slow decay of their marriage. Emotions are fraught in the claustrophobic Weston house and the heat is sweltering, plus Violet’s dependence on prescription pills and her viciously loose lipped nature all amount to a brutal few days in August: Osage County.
Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way. That cast list. It really is rather impressive. And there’s not a loose link in the whole bunch. You’ll no doubt have heard that Meryl Streep is brilliant and she truly is. Violet is a hideous, bitter creation who uses her past sufferings to denigrate her children’s and Streep perfectly slurs and spits her way through her every twisted monologue. But of course. In the words of Modern Family’s Cameron, “Meryl Streep could play Batman and it would be perfection.” Elsewhere, Juliette Lewis is gloriously spacey and Margo Martindale marvellously fierce. Julianne Nicholson is quietly resentful but determined as the only sister who never left Oklahoma, and Benedict Cumberbatch is wonderfully pathetic as her emotionally stunted puppy dog of a cousin. But the real revelation is Julia Roberts. Not since Closer has she allowed herself to be a character so flawed and oftentimes wholly unsympathetic.
Based on Tracy Lett’s play of the same name, August: Osage County is a little too long, somewhat bizarre given that it devotes relatively little time to its individual subplots. There’s also a few too many monologues. Whilst it is interesting having characters divulge their secrets in eloquent confidence, it’s hard not to ignore the theatrical origins of the story in such moments. Whilst the script is unmistakably intense, it’s also worthy of note that there are several points of darkly humourous character conflict. See how Cumberbatch’s Little Charles propels himself out of his dinner seat to confess to a secret only to retract lamely back into his shell again, or when Robert’s Barbara and Streep’s Violet go head to head over breakfast. There are some brilliant lines in August: Osage County ready to save the film from when it gets a little too po-faced, and the film benefits from it totally.
All in all, August: Osage County nails the claustrophobia of family and the bitterness of familial tensions perfectly, thanks mainly to John Wells’ relatively understated direction and powerhouse performances by Roberts and Streep. Just don’t be surprised if like the Westons themselves you wind up begging some small release from its unnecessary two hour duration.