August: Osage County
- James Mottram
- 9 December 2013
The third play written by Tracy Letts to reach the big screen in the past seven years, August: Osage County, on the surface, bears little connection to the two efforts adapted by William Friedkin. Both Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2011) were intense, ugly, violent works, populated by extreme characters. By comparison, August: Osage County – written in 2007, and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama a year later – is a family story about ordinary folk from Oklahoma. There are no paranoid schizophrenics or fried-chicken-obsessed hitmen here.
That said, Letts’ story is just as full of bile and black humour as anything else he’s written. Much of it is channelled through Meryl Streep’s pill-popping, cancer-riddled, foul-mouthed matriarch Violet Weston. At the outset, her once-famous poet husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes missing. By the time he turns up dead, drowned in a local lake, the extended family are on hand – ready for one hell of a funeral wake.
Led by the Westons’ three daughters, Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the film’s centrepiece is an excruciating family meal that sees recriminations and rancour as the dishes of the day. Around the dinner table are Barbara’s ex-husband (Ewan McGregor) and daughter (Abigail Breslin); Karen’s flash-harry fiancé (Dermot Mulroney); and Violet’s just-as-repulsive sister (Margo Martindale) and her family (well-meaning husband Chris Cooper, timid son Benedict Cumberbatch).
Adapted by Letts, and serviceably directed by John Wells (a former producer of The West Wing), the result is a giant gumbo-dish of a movie. Imagine EastEnders set in the sweltering heat, as characters argue and axe-grind and actors showboat and grandstand – Streep is on vicious form, though it’s Roberts and Nicholson who truly stand out. Others, like McGregor, are simply bystanders, unable to compete. It’s hysterical and hard to watch, but grimly compelling nonetheless.
General release from Fri 17 Jan.