Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Film Review: August: Osage County (2013)

Director: John Wells
Screenplay: Tracy Letts
Stars: Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julia Roberts and Ewan McGregor

Sometimes a script comes together which functions solely to allow a star studied ensemble to chew scenery, shout, scream, and cry at each other and generally get the chance to show their acting range. Is there anything wrong with that? Not as far as I’m concerned, and that’s why August: Osage County is a rousing success.

Unlike the previous two film adoptions of Tracy Letts plays, Bug and Killer Joe, August: Osage County does not deliver the same cinematic experience we got from master film maker William Friedkin, yet this film is just as uneasy to watch at times. A simple story of a dysfunctional (a term used lightly) family brought together by the suicide of the father sees a life time of family secrets, mistakes, and aggressions spill out over the course of a few days. The film is like a powder keg, ready to explode at any given moment, taking down as many people as it can in just two hours.

A cynical view of the film could say there are just too many things revealed and too many wounded characters to feel realistic, because, indeed, every scene either sets up a revelation or delivers the hammer blow. For me, the screenplay (also by Letts) gives these actors dialogue which sounds real and gives them just the right amount of screen time so we know the order of the food chain. Moreover, the film gives everyone something to get their acting teeth into, most notably Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts whose Oscar nominations are thoroughly deserved.

As Violet, the pill addicted mother, Streep somehow can make us feel a degree of sympathy despite all the wicked things she has to say about her own family, highlighted in a tour de force sequence around the dinner table where she tears into each person, culminating in her own daughter physically wrestling her to the ground. We can see why her husband killed himself if this was her daily routine; moreover, his memory is barely touched on in the film with all the family caught up in their own problems and baggage brought into the family house. The house itself is like a prison with windows taped up, daylight like a reminder of the world they have given up on.

Everything and everyone is trapped by their own lies and deceit; Barbara (Julia Roberts) and her husband (Ewan McGregor) are separated but won’t tell anyone, Karen (Juliette Lewis) is a phony hiding behind false hair colour and designer clothes whilst her rich fiancĂ©e is clearly going through a midlife crisis she refuses to acknowledge, and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is in love with the one man in the world she shouldn’t be involved with. However, it takes this one family reunion, brought about by a suicide, for them to see what’s going on but, we assume, nothing changes once they leave to go home.

This is an actor’s film and director John Wells does a fine job of just letting them get on with the acting thanks to an unobtrusive camera with many of the interior scenes having the immediacy of a stage play for nothing is hidden or cut away from. Even the exterior shots hold an inescapable quality; we see the a few shots of the skyline of Osage County as a respite from the caldron of anger and anxiety we’re soon brought back to. Again, in one scene Violet runs away from Barbara and through a wide open field in broad daylight but there’s nowhere to hide or escape to both metaphorically and, in this instance, literally.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: Despite the relentless anger, the screenplay does inject a fair amount of much need dark humour in the all the bad mouthing, and some comic relief in the form of Karen’s fiancĂ© who is a borderline caricature of what is best described as a douchebag. Therein lies the greatness of this film, a simple story with more layers than an onion, and one which leaves just as an unpleasant taste at times. It has the ability to makes us laugh, makes us uneasy, and make us watch on in awe of the talent on screen. Highly recommended.

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