‘August: Osage County’ Review

By Lydia Lucas

After a limited release on Christmas, August: Osage County finally came to theaters in Muncie a couple of weeks ago. I had been wanting to see this critically acclaimed, star-studded film since I first saw its trailer featuring the likes of Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, and well, you get the idea. It’s the story of a dysfunctional Oklahoman family from the middle of nowhere Osage County who are forced to come together when crisis strikes. August: Osage County utilizes theatrical plot structure, cinematography, and dialogue to explore extreme levels of family dysfunction. The  characters represent different ways in which crisis and emotional trauma can lead people to confront struggle.

    The film is based on the play of the same name and several theatrical elements make their way into the cinematic structure. I have yet to read the play (although I’d like to now), but based on the Wikipedia article, it looks like the film closely follows the play’s three act structure. This fact is probably due to the fact that the playwright, Tracy Letts, also wrote the film’s screenplay.

The cinematography portrays the Oklahoma countryside as both beautiful and integral to the feel of the movie. it’s also obvious that the entirety of the storyline could easily take place with the interior of the house as the only setting. This confined setting lends itself to theatrical comparisons as well as providing the viewer a sense of the characters’ entrapment.The plot is character-driven, which is not unheard of in cinema, but tends to be more of a theatre tradition. Each character deals with their own personal demons as well as the crisis that brought them all together in the first place; the disappearance and eventual death of the patriarch of the family, Beverly Weston. The last scene of Act I was a particularly powerful one for me. High as usual on her prescription drugs for her mouth cancer, Violet (played by the ever elegant Meryl Streep), hears the news of her husband’s death and apparent suicide. She puts on the Eric Clapton record “Lay Down Sally.” This song is a motif throughout the story, and the lyrics themselves can be attributed to several aspects of what Violet must be feeling. As Clapton sings, “Won’t you stay with me? And don’t you ever leave,” Violet dances dreamily around the living room, clearly having trouble processing this terrible news in her current state.

While dealing with the death of Beverly, many past emotional traumas are exposed. Violet and her sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), were severely abused as children, a fact which immediately gives grounds for Violet’s behavior. After Violet spends the whole film being so abrasive, we eventually learn of all these secrets she’s been hiding. She’s completely unwilling to face reality, hence her abuse of her prescription medications.

Violet and Mattie Fae have both taken out their past aggressions on their children. Violet’s three daughters each display the lack of love they received as children in the adults they have become. Barbara’s (Julia Roberts) lost marriage, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) hid her own cancer from the family, and Karen’s (Juliette Lewis) toxic relationships with equally toxic men.

Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the son of Mattie Fae and Charlie Aiken (Chris Cooper). He has one supportive parent, and then there’s his mother, who uses every chance she’s given to criticize him. It’s obvious this is something he’s put up with his whole life. He has become something of a loser in her eyes. Learning the motivation for Mattie Fae’s cruelty toward her son is just another hidden secret in this deeply disturbed family dynamic.

In the midst of the tragedy, Barbara also deals with her own family’s problems. She is separated from her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), while trying to keep her daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), from going off the deep end. She ends up being the epitome of a daughter’s worst nightmare: becoming her own mother.

One of the weirdest and most touching storylines is the love story between Little Charles and Ivy. This is a modern story, and a relationship between cousins is not taken lightly by those who find out about their relationship. However, because Ivy lost her ability to have children due to cervical cancer, the two decide that they don’t care what people think. Ivy’s choice to be with Little Charles is obviously and heartbreakingly tied in with the lack of love she receives from the rest of her family. But once again, Violet and her hidden secrets might be the end of this one happiness she has found.

Throughout the film there is one character on the outside of the familial chaos. She is Johnna, the Native American housekeeper. I see her as an extension of the audience, seeing all of this from the outside perspective. She’s quiet, but fiercely loyal to the family. In the end she’s the only person Violet has left as the credits roll, “Lay Down Sally” playing once more.

The theatrical elements and the dynamic characters drive the plot of August: Osage County in some crazy, dysfunctional, and frankly screwed up directions. The ride is only half the fun as you get to know these characters for whom you will feel a sense of pity and, for most of them, blatant disgust. If this sounds like your type of film, I would highly recommend seeing it even if only to see the fabulous Meryl Streep and the lovely Julia Roberts in Oscar-nominated roles.