Tracy Letts, the screenwriter, is a name I tend to associate with the dark and grimy. His two previous screenwriting credits, Bug and Killer Joe, were directed by William Friedkin and proved to be delightfully wicked exercises in bad taste. The vileness of his work is not something I would associate with actors like Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts, let alone the imposed prestige of the Academy Awards or Harvey Weinstein. But the general marketing of August: Osage County has drawn upon its Oscar®-nominated ensemble and projected sensibility that this is an awards vehicle of the highest caliber. If you’re going to sell a movie, I suppose that’s the way to do it. But to my pleasant surprise, August: Osage County remains vehemently aligned with Letts’ sensibility, where characters and situations remained deeply rooted in the hostile and deranged. And part of the novelty of seeing August: Osage County is how it revokes the typical imagery associated with his previous works. The hardened faces of guys like Michael Shannon and Thomas Haden Church are exchanged for a softer hue in the aforementioned Streep and Roberts - but the gender shift in no way cushions the exhilarating absurdity of the material.
The death of the Weston patriarch brings together a family that has in large part forgotten about its eldest members. It’s a catalyst that’s been done before, though it’s Letts’ ability to amplify dysfunction to the umpteenth degree that allows this particular trip feel fresh. Despite this freshness, the picture does seem to recalibrate its tone on several occasions before finding a groove to maintain its momentum. The film’s opening sequence, for example, sees Beverley Weston (Sam Shepherd) detailing the household dynamic to a newly-hired housekeeper only to be reprimanded by his drug-addled wife Violet (Meryl Streep). It’s an uncomfortable submission to the Meryl Streep School of Overacting, where hyperactivity is mistaken for energy, loudness for punctuation - I feared I had another American Hustle on my lap. But as the primary players to the narrative are introduced, particularly the Weston’s three daughters Barbara, Ivy and Karen (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis respectively), a sense of harmony is struck. It all comes together to the notorious dinner sequence, where the cast is left to their own devices in one of the most over-the-top scenes of acting of the year, with virtually every performer developing acuity for the camera. While this might come across as a blunder, it’s a riveting sequence of chaos that has all the trappings of a Letts sequence: it gives you a similar jolt of shock as Bug’s tooth scene or Killer Joe’s tribute to KFC.
John Wells is credited as director, but unlike William Friedkin, he doesn’t inject a sense of self into Letts’ words. It’s all for the best though, as this is an effort motivated by Letts’ words and the actors that realize them. Most striking within the ensemble though and someone who unfortunately is marginalized within the chaos is the soft-spoken Julianne Nicholson. Mentioned in my most recent Thursday Ten, it’s a performance that August: Osage County needs to remain grounded. In one of the film’s final scenes she sits with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and more than holds her own, provoking genuine tenderness in a midst of such hyperactivity. When you stand out as Meryl Streep exercises her facial tics and when Julia Roberts delivers such hilarious quotables as “Eat the fish, bitch!”, then you must be doing something right.