Review: August Osage County

Dripping With Furiously Delicious Gothic Melodrama, Streep and Roberts Are Sublime. No One’s Getting Out Of This Unscathed.

Adapted by Tracy Letts from his own Pulitzer Prize-wining play, August: Osage County may well be set in sun-weathered central Missouri, but its razor sharp comedy drips with the insufferably sticky heat of Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor’s dark southern gothics.

In keeping with the claustrophobic intimacy of the stage show, director John Wells, executive producer of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, confines the majority of proceedings to the Weston’s dimly lit, dusty home, where furiously pill-popping matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep) harangues her alcoholic, has-been poet husband Beverly (Sam Shepard). Theirs is not a happy marriage.

Shepard makes an impressive mark in a smaller role, with the exasperated Beverly hiring Native American Johnna (Misty Upham) to keep the house, and his crazed wife, under some semblance of control. Violet’s having none of it, with Streep’s arrival quite terrifying. Skeletally gaunt and crashing into walls, she’s clearly off chops on a cocktail of prescription drugs, chain-smoking a procession of fags she clutches like daggers.

Forget the mimicry of Phyllida Lloyd’s abysmal The Iron Lady, this powerhouse performance showcases Streep’s absolute command of the melodramatic material. The film hangs on her hatefully bitter spite, with Violet priding herself on her all-seeing eye, like a baleful Sauron atop Barad-dûr.

Beverly doesn’t hang around long, with his sudden disappearance summoning the extended family for Violet to prey on systematically, picking at the scabs of their personal insecurities. Julia Roberts all but steals the show in a career-high turn as supposedly prized eldest daughter Barbara, a fiercely intelligent but controlling mother to teenage dope smoker Jean (Abigail Breslin) and estranged wife to Ewan McGregor’s Bill. Barb appears to be creeping ever closer to becoming the mother she rejects.

Julianne Nicholson plays Ivy, the meeker middle daughter who stayed close to home but attempts to hide her closely guarded private life from her mother. Judging this understated role perfectly, Nicholson refuses to slip into sentimentality when an awkward romance surfaces. Juliette Lewis is also great fun as trashy youngest sister Karen, full of naive hope when she arrives in a hilarious muscle car with sleazy new fiancé, serial divorcee Steve (Dermot Mulroney), in tow.

Margo Martindale, as Violet’s scotch-swilling, call it like it is sister Mattie Fae, is a hoot in a film that, for the most part, is dominated by its female protagonists. Chris Cooper, as Mattie Fae’s mild-mannered husband Charles, is particularly protective of their gawky son Little Charles, played by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch a little lower key than his recent starring roles in Star Trek: Into Darkness and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

No one gets out of this unscathed, and August: Osage County captivates for every second of its two hours of spectacularly awful behaviour. Worth it for the battle of wills between Roberts and Streep alone, when the two finally come to blows, quite literally, it’s sheer cinematic gold, as is a certain fish dinner that descends into Irvine Welsh levels of enraged cursing. In truth, there’s not a weak link amongst this truly outstanding cast that sets the bar high for 2014 and signals Wells as a big screen director to watch out for.

Stephen A Russell