August: Osage County is being marketed as a black comedy, and technically it's true. But still, I feel tricked. Maybe it was the happy twang of the Lumineers' song in the film's trailer that so disarmed me. The crazy mother's pill popping seems like it's going to be a cute problem, instead of what it is: A devastating portrait of how drug abuse, secrets and lies ricochet interminably through families. If they cut a trailer that betrayed the true tone of the movie, no one would have the energy to leave their house to get to the theater. It's really that upsetting.
Meryl Streep stars as Violet Weston, a matriarch from Oklahoma who takes a lot of pills—and I mean a lot—while her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) drinks. It's an agreed-upon arrangement until Beverly goes missing, thus bringing their grownup children back home together for the first time in what we can only assume has been quite a while.
Barbara Weston (Julia Roberts) arrives with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Their marriage is on the rocks, and it's all, "Sure, I'm leaving you for a younger woman but maybe it's your fault too."
Karen (Juliette Lewis) shows up with her latest fiancé (Dermot Mulroney), and we learn right away how Karen's chosen to deal with a shattered upbringing: She's always upbeat, she goes from one man to the next, and she never seems to learn from her mistakes.
The third daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), went ahead and stayed in Oklahoma, an act that seems needlessly stoic until you learn she's sticking around to be closer to her love, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), who may or may not be her cousin.
Finally, Uncle Charles and Aunt Mattie Fae, played by Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale, have their own stakes in the game—spoilers that are too explosive to reveal here.
John Wells directs a script by Tracy Letts, which he adapted from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and that's where you'll find the bones of this mess. I liked in particular the scene around the dinner table, which will be familiar to you if you've seen the trailer. The teenager, Jean, tells the family that when you eat animals you ingest their fear. Everyone laughs at her and it's cute at first, but as the moment has time to stretch out, you see just how dismissive and cruel these people can be, how everyone is playing out their old family patterns and how unsettling it is whenever the dynamic gets disrupted. You can almost see another film emerging 20 years later, starring Jean's pent-up rage, unleashed.
Letts also wrote a 2011 film called Killer Joe about another dysfunctional family of mostly grownups. It's one of my favorite movies of the last several years, and it offers much more of the thing we mean when we say "black comedy," but never mind.
What happens when parents and children come back together as adults? They are both the same and strangely changed by what the world's done to them since they left. Everyone's had years apart to write the story of everyone else. In August: Osage County, the conflict between Barbara and Violet takes center stage. They're both strong-willed women who each feel they haven't done anything wrong, baffled and exasperated by the other's complete failure to understand the true reality of the situation. I wonder sometimes if that isn't the source of nearly all our human bickering: Your reality clashing up most unpleasantly with mine, and always our dogged commitment to be right.
This movie marked the first time in a long while that I had to leave the theater from too much weeping. I can't pinpoint exactly what it was, but it triggered some nerve inside of me. I think it was all the shouting at each other. I felt out of control and depressed. It made me want to go slam the door to my bedroom and listen to my Radiohead records.
This is a good but unpleasant movie that takes an unflinching look at addiction. If it reminds you of your own family, my condolences. If it doesn't, well, sit back and be grateful for that.
August: Osage County continues at the Carmike 12.