August Osage County Packs a Punch

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Terry Letts’ searing play, August: Osage County translates brilliantly to the big screen, and directed by John Wells with a stellar ensemble cast, it packs a dramatic punch rarely felt in recent cinema.

Letts’ 2007 play concerns a dysfunctional Oklahoma family brought together in the wake of the patriarch’s suicide to reveal the dark and bitter secrets of their tormented past.  The script has the bite of a Eugene O’Neill tragedy; the Weston women remind of the Tyrone men in Long Day’s Journey into Night – riddled with,disappointment, resentment, guilt, and, in Violet’s case, drugs – savage in their recriminations, wounding and wounded.  Like O’Neill, Letts has the ability to craft long, spellbinding monologues which manage to transfer effectively to the screen by virtue of the intensity and naturalness of the actors and the intimacy created by the director and cinematographer.

John Wells, director, and Adriano Goldman, cinematographer, beautifully evoke a sense of place: the dark, stifling interior of the Weston house set against the blazing heat of the barren plains.  Wells relies on close ups to capture the mesmerizing nuances of his actors’ performances, and he allows the drama to be created from within.

The incomparable Meryl Streep does it again!  She dominates the play as Violet Weston, addicted to prescription drugs, sharp-tongued and unpitying, crippled by her emotionally atrophied childhood and shaped by a marriage mired in deception and disappointment.  Her Violet is a vindictive harridan at the same time that she is a vulnerable and frightened victim.  Her crazed bouts of laughter, her hurled barbs of anger, her quiet, involuntary ticks, her mercurial mood swings all make Violet’s dark reality come alive with pain and poignancy.

Julia Roberts brings a weary cynicism to the role of the estranged oldest daughter, Barbara.  Determined to tell the truth, she both inflicts and endures the pain of her revelations with a stoic dignity and a reluctant love. Julianne Nicholson as Ivy Weston and Juliette Lewis as Karen Weston both create believable foils – disillusioned, but struggling for some modicum of happiness.

Chris Cooper, who apart from Streep, has the most colorful monologues, endows Charlie Aiken with a simple, folksy decency and the compassion lacking in his in-laws.  He is a commanding presence in his big scenes – saying grace at the funeral supper and reproaching his wife for the treatment of their “son.” As Matty Fae, Charles’ wife, Margo Martindale delivers a performance etched in pathos and self-deprecating humor.

In his brief opening scenes Sam Shepherd is a beaten Beverly Weston, resigned to escaping the hell of his marriage and disappointing career.  Ewan McGregor makes a sympathetic Bill, Barbara’s philandering husband, and Dermot Mulroney is a charmingly rakish Steve Huberbrecht. Benedict Cumberbatch contributes a sweet sadness to Little Charles, while Misty Upham as Violet’s housekeeper Johnna and Abigail Breslin as Barbara and Bill’s rebellious daughter round out the cast with commitment and assurance.

It is a delight to experience a film so faithful to its material, so unsparing in its dramatic intensity, and so unrelenting in its pursuit of emotional truth.  August: Osage County has all the hallmarks of a classic!

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