August: Osage County

reviewed by Steve Drum


John Wells’ film adaptation of Tracy Letts’  2007 play August: Osage County maintains the majority of Letts’ painfully realistic family portrait, with each member’s tics in high-definition close-up.

The Weston family, helmed by its tyrannical matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep) and her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard), does not look forward to the holidays or call when something important happens in their lives.  When we arrive, thrust into the aftermath of Beverly’s suicide, the lines of communication have been down for decades with very little hope of repair.

A line from one of Violet’s daughters offers the clearest assessment of Letts’ skill with dialogue and characterization: “It’s not cut and dried, black and white, good and bad. It lives where everything lives: somewhere in the middle.” Every character is fighting each other to keep their own legitimate messes beneath the surface. It’s a beautiful study in cruelty as a defense mechanism.

Part of the madness of Letts’ stage production is conveyed in the claustrophobia of its single set piece: a bisected, oversized dollhouse, exposing every character in every room in a simultaneous invasion of everyone’s privacy. No door can be shut upon the decades of resentment, lies and anger boiling over between Violet and her adult daughters Barbara, Ivy, and Karen – played in the film, respectively, by Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis.

In the play’s script, we don’t have the privilege of following the family in a car to the funeral or escaping to pick someone up at the train station. We only see the characters return wearily to the nucleus of the Weston’s pain: Violet’s now-empty house. In the play, everything is measured in its aftermath.

But Wells’ direction and Letts’ revision of his own script releases this pressure repeatedly.  Ventures outside Violet’s yard remove us from the tight grip of the house and its long shadows. Gustavo Santaolalla’s score offers emotional closed-captioning to moments that, given silence and space, might exist somewhere closer to the messy “middle” that the story seems interested in plumbing.

Meryl Streep is still sovereign empress of interrupting one emotion with a clean broadside in the other direction. Audiences will undoubtedly enjoy the breathtaking power of watching Streep perform, for she appears so genuinely startled by her own bobs and sways. And yet, Streep’s trademark weakens the savage potential of Violet here.

Yes, it’s true: a Meryl Streep performance need not always be some impenetrable snow globe of Oscar inevitability.

The monstrosity of Deanna Dunagan’s Violet onstage came from a refusal to retreat from any wreckage in her wake.  Dunagan was unblinking in watching her children burn in her own fiery breath. But Streep begins to telegraph a vulnerability in Violet a little too early in the film.  Violet should not appear so sympathetic until we’ve watched her in the armor of the unassailable villain for a while.  Likewise, the film retreats from the play’s harsh portrayal of Johnna, the Cheyenne live-in housekeeper who makes Violet Weston so uncomfortable, referring to her only as “The Indian.” In the play, Johnna reminds us (and Violet) that the blood is in the land. It transposes Letts’ story onto the inconvenient truth at the heart of the American plains where the story takes place, giving this small capsule of realism some mythic proportion.

Much has been made of the film’s limp, Hollywood-ized ending that strays significantly from the spirit and letter of the play.  Rumor has it that the play’s ending didn’t test so well on a film audience. Wells chooses to look away, leaving us with another pulled punch.

There are two films here: one, brutal and unfaltering; the other, afraid of its own savagery. It is worth seeing for the first, but the full picture ends up existing somewhere in the middle itself.