Adapted from Tracy Lett’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, director John Wells has created a film that is an actor’s showcase. August: Osage County assembles an all-star ensemble cast that deliver powerhouse performances of this richly complex material. This story lends itself to allowing the actors freedom and the ability to embody these characters.
Set in the plains of Oklahoma, Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) is a wife stricken with cancer and a dependency on pills. Her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) is a poet struggling with long-standing alcoholism, and who is ultimately unhappy in his marriage. Violet’s illness and addiction has turned her into a woman who is deeply unstable, selfish, and unkind and has forced her husband to become lonely and alone.
Shortly after hiring a live-in caregiver, Beverly goes missing. This prompts the family to reunite in an effort to search for him, assuming it is just another one of his alcoholic benders, assuring Voilet that he will return. Not long after, a gruesome discovery is made and the family must now cope with the loss of their patriarch. This event is a catalyst for tension and deeply buried secrets to finally surface as each member of the family reveals their innermost truths. Yet, as much as they argue with each other, they in some way find a strange comfort in coming home.
This is a story universal to all of us. There is something here that we can all relate to with our own families, which is why the original source material has proven to be so successful. Letts, adapting his own material for the screen, has created not just a dramatic dysfunctional family, but a story that taps into the common hardships of life that we all face. It is funny and bittersweet and yet, heartbreakingly sad to watch as Violet descends into madness.
Performances of this calibre are easy to achieve when the direction is this competent, the material this dense, and with actors this talented. Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne Nicholson, and Abilgail Breslin all give some of their best work but the clear standouts are Julia Roberts and Streep as eldest daughter and matriarch, who are grounded, raw, and charged. They fully embody their roles and push each other as actors to go to places that may be difficult but that are ultimately authentic to the story.
This is certainly one of Streep’s best performances in recent years, as she is fully consumed by this woman’s demons. During several key moments in the film, it is clear that the other actors steer clear of Streep and just let her perform. We sit in awe as we watch this master at work. This film confirms what we already know, that Streep is one of the greatest and most cherished actresses alive.
The director approaches this film with the style it deserves, taking care to craft a piece worthy of its predecessor. The sweeping cinematography of the Oklahoma Plains sets the stage, the melancholic soundtrack set the tone, and he has the foresight to allow the actors the freedom to push the material and explore their characters.
This all combines to create a poignant film that reminds us of the difficulties of life, what living with regret will do to our minds, and through it all, the comfort that family can bring, no matter how dysfunctional.